Kamala Harris has made history as the first woman - and the first of Indian and South Asian descent - to be the head of state of the most powerful nation – even if it was only for 85 minutes while President Joe Biden was incapacitated temporarily for a medical procedure
Kamala Harris has made history as the first woman - and the first of Indian and South Asian descent - to be the head of state of the most powerful nation – even if it was only for 85 minutes while President Joe Biden was incapacitated temporarily for a medical procedure. The transfer of power to Vice President Harris took place on Friday at 10:10 am and reverted back to Biden at 11:35 am when he recovered from anaesthesia after a colonoscopy.
Biden's Spokesperson Jen Psaki announced before Harris took over that she would act as the president for a “very brief period” and “will work from her office in the West Wing during this time.” This was the first time in the 245-year history of the US that a woman had held the presidency.
Harris is the first woman to be the nation's vice president placing her "a heartbeat away from the presidency" – and giving her the constitutional right under the 25th amendment to function as president when the head of state is incapacitated.
During the 85 minutes Harris was acting president and the commander-in-chief of the US military, she had control of the world's biggest nuclear arsenal.
Biden underwent the medical procedure at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Centre outside Washington on the eve of his 79th birthday amid speculation about the future of Harris with a reckoning due in three years when the next presidential election takes place.
Meanwhile, another leader of Indian descent, Nikki Haley, is gearing up for a possible presidential run as a Republican going around the country and raising funds for party politicians who could help her.
Haley, who became the first person of Indian descent to be a member of the US cabinet when former President Donald Trump appointed her the Permanent Representative to the United Nations with a spot in his cabinet, told The Wall Street Journal that she would decide on the race in early 2023.
Behind the minutes-long historic, but uneventful wielding of presidential power by Harris lie uncertainties for her. Biden has said that he would run for re-election even though he would turn 82 in in 2024 – but it still is an open question if he would be able to pull it off.
And, questions are swirling about what is next for Harris: If Biden doesn't run would the Democratic Party anoint her his successor – and if he does run, would she continue as his running mate.
Either way, her future is tied to that of Biden, who is weighed down by soaring inflation at 6.2 per cent, the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan, and the illegal immigration crisis which are showing in polls.
According to the RealClear Politics aggregation fo polls, Biden's favourability is 42.3 per cent, while Harris's is even lower at 40.2 per cent. Trump's favourability at 41 per cent is slightly higher than Harris's and only 1.3 per cent lower than Biden's.
In a poll conducted for NBC TV network, only 41 per cent of the members of his party thought the party's chances would be better in 2024 with Biden running for election and in another by National Public Radio, 44 per cent of Democrats and party supporters didn't want him to run again.
Harris made many public appearances with Biden during the first few months in office but these have tapered off leading to media speculation about her standing in the White House.
However, at those events, she stood aside like an acolyte and she has since been given tasks by Biden to act on her own.
But probably through no fault of her own, Harris has not made a mark in the three areas entrusted to her – curbing illegal immigration, getting legislation on elections that would loosen restrictions on voting presumably to help minorities, and the National Space Council, which develops policies in that area.
All three turned out to be missions impossible for her.
Her role in immigration was unclear and her boosters and the media made it seem as if she was the “immigration czar” in charge of the next-to-impossible task of stopping illegal immigration. Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas admitted at a Senate hearing, “The president did not appoint the vice president to be the border czar. He asked her to lead the effort in addressing the root causes of irregular migration. Those are two very different things.”
In the minds of the public that distinction has not registered and 1.6 million surge of illegal immigrants in the 12 months ending in October setting a 21-year record has come to haunt her. And root causes – poverty and violence – lie in Central America, are beyond her control and her trips to Mexico and Guatemala did nothing to stop the rush to the border.
In a TV interview, she made light of her role facetiously telling an interviewer who asked if she had been to the border, “I haven't been to Europe either.”
She has been unable to get the voter legislation moving because of entrenched Republican opposition -- and she has not been able to work across the party lines.
The Space Council does not have a high-profile public role and space news has been dominated by private entrepreneurs Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson.
Amid all this, her own office is reportedly in disarray. Her communications director Ashley Etienne, who was charged with moulding her image, resigned on Thursday capping several media reports about low morale and dysfunction and several staffers quitting.
Politico reported that “22 current and former vice presidential aides, administration officials and associates of Harris and Biden described a tense and at times dour office atmosphere.”
Psaki among others have attributed the harsh spotlight on Harris to racism and misogyny.
“It has been easier and harsher from some in the right wing who have gone after her because she is the first woman, the first woman of color. I’m not suggesting anyone will acknowledge that publicly,” Psaki said this week at a virtual Politico event.
But some Democrats and White House officials have also been attacking her from the sidelines.
As for reports that she has been shut out of Biden's inner circle, his White House is a Byzantine bubble of secrecy with access controlled by protective and loyal operatives – and it does not seem to be directed personally against her.
But she does participate in daily intelligence and other important briefings with Biden.
White House has unfailingly spoken of the “Biden-Harris Administration” sharing the marquee with her.
Biden has also made an effort to build her up in foreign relations, an area of weakness because of her past work in California as a prosecutor and attorney general before her short three-year stint as a senator.
She has been speaking to leaders around the world and meet with visiing dignitaries.
Biden even stepped back and had her lead the second session of the Quad Summit in September with Prime Ministers Narendra Modi and Scott Morrison, the then Japanese leader Yoshihide Suga – but Modi boycotted it.
She went to France on a fence-mending trip this month after a diplomatic snafu over the US-Australia nuclear submarine deal that cut out Paris.
She has also been crisscrossing the country in a bid to amass support for the Biden-Harris policies – and also build her presence.
A drawback is that either she or her handlers have limited her media encounters – perhaps out of fear of gaffes like the one on immigration during her only prime time TV interview.
While she was picked to be vice president – without doubt based on her gender and her primary identity as an African American – she had come off badly in her attempt to run for president.
In the two years left before the 2024 election heats up, Harris will have to overcome the deficiencies of her failed 2020 bid.
She did not even make it to the presidential primaries – the state-by-state intraparty elections to pick the party candidate – dropping out as her polling numbers plummeted before the race heated up.
Despite her primary African American identity, she does not command unqualified support from that group of important Democratic Party constituents because of her strict record as a prosecutor. She also did not have – and does not have – a clearly defined ideological package.
(The writer can be followed @arulouis)