A new report from Politico this week tried to shed light on a phenomenon many observers have noticed in the White House. Vice President Kamala Harris seems to have a more central and emphasized role in the new administration than is typically afforded to her position — more significant than even Joe Biden's role in the early days of President Barack Obama's first term.
According to Politico, this is completely deliberate on President Biden's part — because he wants to treat Harris better than Obama treated him:
Some aides from his time as vice president say Biden is also trying to avoid early missteps that he believes BARACK OBAMA made in their relationship.
"It's all about how he was or wished he was treated during the Obama years, especially in the beginning," said an aide to Biden from when he was vice president. "To the extent there was rockiness in the relationship it was mostly in the beginning."
It even recounted an early event from Obama and Biden's relationship that painted the picture of a tense relationship:
When Biden said during the campaign that U.S. adversaries would likely test Obama's mettle in the opening months of the presidency, Obama called Biden and told him he didn't need such public tutoring. "I don't need you acting like you're my Henry Higgins," Obama snapped, Biden would tell his aides later, according to former adviser JEFF CONNAUGHTON. (Higgins being the character in the musical "My Fair Lady" who teaches Eliza Doolitte about polite society—yes, we're huge MFL fans.)
Biden's private reaction, he told people, was, "Whoa. Where did this come from? This is clearly a guy who could restrict my role to attending state funerals or just put me in a closet for four years." According to Connaughton's book "The Payoff," Biden concluded: "I'm going to have to earn his trust, but I'm not going to grovel to this guy. My manhood is not negotiable."
It's not clear how accurate this account of Biden's motivations is, or if the version of his relationship with Obama is overly one-sided. But it is clear that the current administration is going out of its way to emphasize that vice president's role — something that happened even before their election. As Politico reported, administration officials frequently refer to the "Biden-Harris administration," even though it's more typical to refer to the administration using only the president's name. The report even notes that officials largely refer to the predecessor administration as the "Trump administration" — and generally, the term "Trump-Pence administration" was much less common.
Harris is frequently seen alongside the president in the Oval Office during public meetings and events, and her views are frequently highlighted by the White House.
One amusing part of the report noted:
PETE BUTTIGIEG's Transportation Department, however, hasn't been as consistently on-message. After Buttigieg's swearing in, the department initially referred to it as the "Biden administration." On Feb. 25, a department press release quoted Buttigieg hailing "the Biden-Harris" administration's commitment to clean transportation, but elsewhere the release referred simply to the "Biden administration." Buttigieg's office declined to comment.
Though the observation may seem trivial, it hints at the real stakes here. Buttigieg wants to be president. As does Harris. And by highlighting Harris's role prominently, Biden may be quite intentionally molding her in the public's eye as his natural successor. This was my interpretation when it became clear the Biden administration would be consistently highlighting Harris's role.
The choice makes sense. Vice presidents often run for president, and they often become president. That is, of course, how Biden — who had previously been unsuccessful in his bids for the White House — came to occupy the Oval Office. So it's reasonable to assume Harris has a decent chance at becoming president someday, and Biden may intend to give her the best shot at reaching the goal. Presumably, he only picked her as his running mate because he thought she'd be good at the job. Making her already seem presidential could indeed be a big help in her efforts, especially since Harris will have to fight against misogynistic and racist prejudice in order to win.
Hanging over all of this, of course, is the undeniable fact that Biden is not a young man. Because of his age, it can't be assumed he'll run again in 2024, or even that he'll be healthy enough to make it through a full first term. Harris may have to take over for him sooner than expected, making it all the more important to ensure there will be a smooth transition if it happens. That's certainly easier if Harris is deeply involved in the everyday work of the president — not shunted to the sidelines like the fictional Vice President Selina Meyer, portrayed by Julia Louis-Dreyfus in HBO's "Veep."
There may indeed be truth to Politico's reporting that Biden is actively trying to be a better president to Harris than Obama was to him. Despite the fact that Biden and Obama were perceived as and often played up the image of being close friends, some reporting has cast doubt on their bond, including a recent story in The Hill that suggested the former president was not enthused about his vice president's 2020 campaign.
But there's a key difference in the Biden-Harris relationship that may make it more congenial than the Obama-Biden partnership. Obama came into office with a huge wave of enthusiasm, but he also faced deep wells of skepticism because of his youth and race. He had picked Biden as his running mate to balance out some of these concerns from the public and commentariat, and perhaps because he falsely thought Biden's own age meant he would have abandoned his own presidential ambitions.
It's not hard to see, though, how this would make Obama guarded around Biden and eager to put him in his place. Obama likely felt that he needed to prove that he deserved to be where he was, and that meant he didn't want to be seen as relying on Biden.
Biden, whatever his faults, likely lacks any similar insecurity. On the first day of his presidency, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said Biden "felt like he was coming home." After eight years as vice president and decades in the Senate, he thinks being president is exactly where he belongs. Without the self-doubt, it's easy for him to make a prominent place for his vice president.