Kamala Harris' appointment as vice president of the United States was historic. She became the first woman, the first Black, and the first Asian ever to take on the role. The White House seemed to embrace the new VP, using the tagline "Biden-Harris Administration," on social media to underscore the importance of the second-in-command.
But, in the months after Harris took office her leadership began to suffer. Reports soon emerged of a string of departures from key staff members and press coverage indicated the new VP was a demanding boss struggling to handle her political portfolio.
"Exasperation and dysfunction: Inside Kamala Harris' frustrating start as vice president" read one CNN headline.
"Kamala Harris: The absentee VP by design," wrote the online newspaper The Hill, which cited the leader's lack of solo press conferences and scant one-on-one interviews as evidence of her fading into the background.
By her 11th month in office Harris' approval rating stood at 28% — 10% below President Joe Biden.
However, while the public and media may have been dissatisfied with Harris' leadership, the vice president was doing exactly what was required of her, explained Amy Dacey, former CEO of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) in an interview with DW.
The US constitution outlines only two roles for a vice president: take over when a president is unable to serve, and preside over the US Senate. Everything else is an added duty.
Harris plays key role as Senate tie-breaker
As president of the Senate, the vice president is designated to cast tie-breaking votes in the event of split decisions in the body. After the 2020 election the body was split evenly, 50-50 Democrats to Republicans (that balance shifted as a result of the 2022 midterms in which Democrats won a slim majority). This meant that Harris' vote was key to the Biden administration's legislative wins.
For example in August, Harris cast the tie-breaking vote for the Inflation Reduction Act, a federal law meant to fight inflation and promote domestic production. To date, she has acted as a tie-breaker 26 times — topped by only two other vice presidents in US history (John C. Calhoun, 31; and John Adams, 29).
And, while Harris has presided over a divided US Senate on issues of pressing domestic and international importance, she has also been at the forefront of key diplomatic engagements abroad.
Working to help restore US diplomacy abroad
While the Trump administration adhered to an "America First" policy, the Biden administration has sought to return to diplomacy and ensure America is "respected around the world," explained Amy Dacey.
Harris has been a key diplomatic actor since taking office, attending the Munich Security Conference (MSC), for instance, a yearly meeting critical to trans-Atlantic relations. Delivering the keynote speech at the February 2022 installment of the MSC, she was vocal in stressing the Biden administration's support for Ukraine.
"If Russia further invades Ukraine, the United States, together with our allies and partners, will impose significant and unprecedented economic costs," Harris said.
During her November visit to the Philippines, she underscored US support for the country in its territorial disputes with China. "We stand with you in defense of international rules and norms as it relates to the South China Sea," Harris told President Ferdinand Marcos Jr.
Respect for the VP's international engagement is reflected in confidence in her leadership abroad. In a recent Pew Research Center survey roughly 55% of adults in 18 countries said they had confidence in her. That figure is on par with international confidence in US President Joe Biden, French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, according to the survey.
However, as Harris has successfully served as a representative for the administration abroad, her domestic popularity has languished as she grapples with divisive tasks at home.
Harris' difficult domestic responsibilities
Migration is a divisive issue among US politicians and the public, one that has been described as "perilous" and a "political grenade" by experts.
Yet that is one of the portfolios that Harris has been entrusted with by the Biden administration. Her foremost task has been to deal with the influx of migration of peoples into the US through Mexico and Central America's Northern Triangle — made up of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.
For her first foreign trip Harris traveled to Guatemala and Mexico in June of 2021, saying she wanted to address the "root causes" of migration.
"I want to be clear to folks in this region who are thinking about making that dangerous trek to the United States-Mexico border: Do not come. Do not come," said Harris in a press conference with Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei.
In response, US Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, a fellow Democrat, tweeted, "This is disappointing to see."
Republican lawmakers complained that Harris had not gone straight to the US-Mexico border.
"We will continue sending migrants to sanctuary cities like DC until Pres. Biden & Border Czar Harris step up & do their jobs to secure the border," Abbott wrote on Twitter.
Is Kamala Harris a failure or just misrepresented?
While Harris has had to deal with challenging assignments, her leadership has been far from a failure, according to Amy Dacey, who suggests the pressure she faces from the public and fellow lawmakers may have less to do with job performance and more with who she is and how she is represented.
Harris is dealing with the fact that she is both a minority and a woman in US politics. There are, for instance, no Black women currently serving in the US Senate, the very body she presides over.
And politics in the US are also overwhelmingly male, especially in executive leadership — the United States has yet to elect a female president.
This creates added difficulty for women trying to get into politics in the US. These "often feel like they've had to prove themselves in ways that men have not," explained Kelly Dittmar, an assistant research professor at Rutgers University's Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP) in an interview with DW.
In 2020, Harris ran against Joe Biden in the Democratic presidential primaries but dropped out of the race citing a lack of financial resources. Her exit had an added effect, according to Dittmer, who said Harris "suffered from the perception that she was not ready, did not have the qualifications, was not electable as president."
But running for office and losing is not at all unusual for those with presidential ambitions. Joe Biden ran for the office twice before being elected. He also served as vice president for eight years.
Despite the wins and losses that have come with Harris' leadership, US politics do not happen in a vacuum. Each decision, engagement, and new legislation creates an incremental change even if the impact is not readily understood by the broader public, Amy Dacey explained.
But these small wins often fall outside of Kamala Harris' main role as a vice president. A job that she may already be fulfilling.
Edited by: Jon Shelton