Hard times for Harris
Vice President Kamala Harris sees low approval ratings as she struggles to promote President Joe Biden’s agenda
Last Friday, Vice President Kamala Harris became the first woman in history to get U.S. presidential powers when she took the reins from President Joe Biden for 85 minutes while he underwent a routine medical procedure. But if Harris hopes to one day be elected to that office, she may need to boost her poll numbers first.
A survey earlier this month from USA Today and Suffolk University found that only 28 percent of voters approved of Harris’ job performance, a rate worse than those of the last four vice presidents at this point in their terms, according to tracking by the Los Angeles Times. Vice presidential approval numbers typically rise and fall with the president’s ratings. Biden’s numbers have slipped following the messy withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan and amid rising inflation, but in the Suffolk poll, Harris’ approval rate was 10 percentage points lower than his.
Some have argued Harris gets more flak because of her gender and race. White House press secretary Jen Psaki last week claimed Republican critics “have gone after [the vice president] because she is the first woman, the first woman of color.” Before the 2020 presidential election, an analysis by software company Zignal Labs found that 1 percent of tweets about former Vice President Mike Pence contained misinformation, compared with 4 percent about Harris. (While some research suggests women must contend with gender stereotypes while running for office, at least one recent study concluded that female U.S. politicians are typically judged less harshly for poor governance once in office.)
But Harris’ low approval ratings could also stem from two politically fraught agenda items the president asked her to tackle: voting and immigration. Harris has taken steps to advocate for both issues, but her progress on both appears to have faltered, likely due at least in part to factors outside of her control.
After Biden assigned Harris to address the apparent root causes of Central American migration to the United States—including poor economic and social conditions in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras—Republicans attacked her for initially putting off a visit to the southern border. Meanwhile, liberal Democrats such as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., criticized her for telling migrants in a speech “do not come” to the United States.
Harris has worked with the Department of Justice and other law enforcement officials to launch anti-corruption and anti-smuggling task forces. (The anti-corruption task force announced a tip line in October but has released few other details.) She also assembled a group of private companies that have promised to support economic growth in Central America. The group said in October it had begun working with coffee farmers in Honduras and El Salvador and expanding internet access in the region.
But Ariel Ruiz, an analyst at the Migration Policy Institute, said he’s seen little obvious anti-corruption progress so far. He’s concerned migrant caravans and other headline-grabbing events at the U.S.-Mexico border will distract the administration from its efforts to address migration’s causes.
Harris did emphasize fighting corruption during a trip to Guatemala, but she faces entrenched challenges: This summer, El Salvador withdrew from an anti-corruption accord with the Organization of American States after the group appointed as adviser a politician El Salvador’s president accused of corruption. The U.S. diplomatic representative in El Salvador, Jean Manes, said this week that relations between the two countries are “on a bit of a pause” because El Salvador is unwilling to work with the United States. (Manes is leaving her post over the lack of cooperation.)
On this issue of voting, Harris has met with activists and opposed new state laws she says would impede voter access to the polls. She’s called members of Congress urging them to vote for two bills, the For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, that would overhaul campaign finance laws, ban partisan gerrymandering of electoral districts, and make other voting changes. Republican opposition has so far squashed the bills. Harris, of course, can’t stop Republican-led state legislatures from changing their states’ voting laws.
Voting and immigration are currently polarized issues, but Joel Goldstein, an expert on the office of vice president, pointed out that they’re only part of Harris’ job. Vice presidents also advise presidents, a behind-the-scenes role that Goldstein said is critical but difficult to assess from the outside.
Biden and Harris have lunch weekly, and Biden has praised her efforts to ensure passage of the infrastructure bill. Yet a CNN report claimed Harris complained she hadn’t had a larger role in Biden’s decisions about the Afghanistan withdrawal and that her staff is frustrated that Biden assigned her the thorny task of addressing immigration.
Harris, a former presidential candidate, could run for president again when Biden leaves office. But the difficulties in her role as vice president have cast doubt on her political future. Meanwhile, other potential Democratic contenders have recently gotten the spotlight. Former Georgia state Rep. Stacey Abrams, for example, has gained attention on the voting issue, and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg is a primary spokesman for popular policies in the infrastructure package, which could give him a boost.
For now, Psaki has declined to say whether Biden would support a Harris bid for the presidency. After CNN’s bruising report, she tweeted that Harris is a “vital partner” to the president.