By Shivaji Sengupta
As we sit to evaluate our fellow (all right, half ) as the vice president of the United States, questions come to mind: do you think she would have been vice president had she never run for president and lost to Joe Biden? Or, if 2020 had not seen the meteoric rise of Black Lives Matter? Or, for that matter, Hillary Clinton hadn’t lost in 2016? I am inclined to answer all three questions, as No.
The answers indicate that of the three circumstances, she had willed just the first one. Wanting to be president, she settled for VP. Black Lives Matter provided her with being at the right place at the right time. Ditto, Hillary Clinton. And all of the above had to do with the fact that the U.S. badly needed a woman as vice president. Kamala was that woman.
I guess all of history is a result of the alignment of fortunes: some personally engendered; others fortuitously. Ms. Harris has that metal in her, that ethos that makes her want to break barriers. Otherwise, how can the daughter of a tiny South Indian woman who thought no further than becoming a scientist and a scholar, who, in the same year, earned her doctorate and gave birth to Kamala, how could that daughter break one barrier after another? One can explain it only by the admonishing advice Shyamala Gopalan gave to her five year old, Kamala: always be the first; never last!
After one hundred and sixty-five days into the vice presidency, Harris has done no better (but no worse) than other starting vice presidents. According to polls, her approval rating is almost the same as Mike Pence’s was in 2017. 46% favorable, 44% unfavorable, 10%, not sure. Only All Gore’s in recent history was better. And, again, do not forget, we are talking about a woman here.
Kamala Harris also has the misfortune of having followed the Trump presidency, the latter being judged so far as the worst five of the forty-five American presidents, who has spewed nothing but venom and viciousness since his defeat in 2020. He has taken with him 70 million votes, of which no less than 40 million still believe Trump is president, and, by extension, Kamala Harris is illegally VP. Not the ideal circumstances to begin your career as the deputy to the chief executive of the United States! Not surprisingly, about 90% of Republicans view her unfavorably. 77% of the Democrats feel the opposite. I am one of them.
Elected officials, for better or worse, are judged by how much they are fulfilling their campaign promises. Kamala Harris laid out the terrain in crisp, biting language in her political autobiography, . She criticized the incumbent administration with these (memorable) words:
“In the years since, we’ve seen an administration align itself with white supremacists at home and cozy up to dictators abroad; rip babies from their mothers’ arms in grotesque violation of their human rights; give corporations and the wealthy huge tax cuts while ignoring the middle class; derail our fight against climate change; sabotage health care and imperil a woman’s right to control her own body; all while lashing out at seemingly everything and everyone, including the very idea of a free and independent press.”
From them we may extrapolate that a Biden-Harris administration would set right a) racial discrimination that has flared up in America, b) reform immigration, c) increase taxes on the corporation and wealthy, d) reverse policies on climate-change, e) protect Roe versus Wade, and f) respect the independent press. She does not mention Republican attacks on voting rights which, along with her passionate interest in immigration. The public will judge her based on her performance in this area.
It needs to be mentioned here that the vice president’s record in these areas has to be judged in terms of her performance as vice president, as president. As VP, her primary goal seems to be to learn its job description. And that is exactly what she has been doing. We see her routinely stand silently by President Biden in all of the latter’s executive appearances, whether signing laws, executive orders, or appear jointly with other heads of states. Consequently, Ms. Harris has caught the flack that belongs properly to the president.
The Biden-Harris administration is catching the crossfire between conservatives on one side, and the progressives on the other. You can’t please both sides, Joe Biden knows this particularly because of his 30+ years of work as senator. As a result, Kamala is walking a tightrope, getting severely criticized. While all is fair in love, war and politics, and no one blames opponents of Kamala Harris to take her for fair game on such political affairs. What is unfortunate is the way Republican women have come after her by criticizing her mannerisms, even her wonderfully open-soul laughter. Her laughter, some of them are saying, is a defense mechanism. She laughs not with her interviewers, but mostly to forestall them, even mock them. Then there are references to how badly, madly and harshly Kamala runs her office, with a nod to Donald Trump.
There is, however, one area of her work in which she is failing. And once again she cannot be held directly responsible for it. That area is immigration. Immigration is such a complex and messy area that no one new at the presidency should try right away. But, not surprisingly, Biden’s reverse-Trump policies on immigration at any cost, was very unwise. The President is humanistic in working with immigration issues. But they have made a huge mess of it, already exacerbated by Trump’s administration. Consequently, to send the VP hurriedly to a hastily put together Latin America was an unmitigated disaster. The vice president, whose strongest suit is not tactfulness and diplomacy, has been frequently seen to be flummoxed and short-tempered when asked tough questions by the members. She must learn to be more patient.
Shivaji Sengupta regularly contributes opeds to The South Asian Times.