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We the People: As vice president, Kamala Harris faces a difficult balancing act

UPDATED: Fri., Oct. 29, 2021

Vice President Kamala Harris speaks Friday at the Northeast Bronx YMCA, in the Bronx borough of New York.  (Jacquelyn Martin/Associated Press)
Vice President Kamala Harris speaks Friday at the Northeast Bronx YMCA, in the Bronx borough of New York. (Jacquelyn Martin/Associated Press)

Each week, The Spokesman-Review examines one question from the Naturalization Test immigrants must pass to become United States citizens.

Today’s question: What is the name of the Vice President of the United States now?

On Wednesday, President Joe Biden strode into the West Wing office of Vice President Kamala Harris and handed her a bouquet and a framed photo of the two of them strolling through the White House rose garden, laughing.

It was Harris’s 57th birthday, and a brief respite in a busy schedule that took the vice president from Colorado’s Lake Mead on Monday to a YMCA in the Bronx on Friday to promote the White House’s “Build Back Better Agenda” of social programs and measures to combat climate change.

“No matter what’s going on, you are always filled with so much joy, love, and smiles,” Doug Emhoff, Harris’s husband and the nation’s first second gentleman, wrote on Twitter, along with a selfie of the smiling couple.

But the vice president’s first nine months on the job have been seemingly short on joy, in part because Biden has asked her to take on some of the most politically fraught issues the administration is grappling with: a diplomatic effort aimed at discouraging migration from Central America, and an effort to counter Republican efforts to restrict voting in GOP-controlled states, something the federal government has limited tools to stop.

That portfolio has made Harris a favorite target of Republicans, who criticized her relentlessly for not making a trip to the U.S.-Mexico border despite her focus on immigration. The White House insisted her role was to focus on the factors that cause migrants to leave the “Northern Triangle” countries of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, but Harris eventually visited the southern border in June.

The vice president’s aides argue she faces an extra degree of scrutiny and criticism as the first woman, first Black American and first person of South Asian descent in the role.

Harris’ job is made harder by the fact that, while she is widely expected to run for president , she faces pressure not to overshadow Biden or even appear focused on her own political future.

Biden, who will turn 79 in November, became the nation’s oldest president at his inauguration in January. While he has not ruled out running for a second term, Harris is widely seen as the Democratic Party’s most likely standard bearer if Biden chooses to retire in 2025.

Yet while Harris has been tasked with pieces of the White House agenda that bring big risks and little political upside, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg – her former and perhaps future Democratic primary opponent – has traveled the country touting the administration’s popular efforts to improve roads, bridges and other infrastructure.

Her party’s razor-thin majority in the Senate, where she spent four years representing California, has required Harris to play another important role as the tiebreaker in the upper chamber, where Democrats and Republicans each control 50 seats and the vice president holds the title of president of the Senate.

On her birthday, Harris headed down Pennsylvania Avenue to cast her 11th tiebreaking vote in just nine months.

When she’s not leading the administration’s efforts on high-risk, low-reward issues, Harris has spent much of her time traveling around the country making appearances at the kinds of benign events to which vice presidents have famously been relegated.

On Friday, the White House announced another trip for Harris that promises more of the same: She will travel to France in November for a Veterans Day event and to attempt to patch up an awkward relationship with French President Emmanuel Macron, whose government was outraged when Australia pulled out of a $66 billion deal to buy submarines from France in favor of a deal to get nuclear-powered subs from the U.S. and the United Kingdom.

Her political future may still be bright, but if she wants to occupy the Oval Office one day, Harris will no doubt have to build her own political profile while enduring more tough assignments first.

Orion Donovan-Smith's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.

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