The Kamala crisis: White House puts VP front and centre after insiders leak claim of tensions

Ms Harris’ presence at Monday’s bill signing came amid a slew of negative headlines

<p>President Joe Biden, with Vice President Kamala Harris and Heather Kurtenbach, with Iron Workers Local 86 in Seattle, arrives to speak before signing the $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill into law during a ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, Monday, Nov. 15, 2021. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)</p>

President Joe Biden, with Vice President Kamala Harris and Heather Kurtenbach, with Iron Workers Local 86 in Seattle, arrives to speak before signing the $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill into law during a ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, Monday, Nov. 15, 2021. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

She has the lowest approval ratings of anyone who has held her job in modern history. She is the White House’s point person on two of the most intractable policy gridlocks in Washington, and her advisers are feuding with her boss’s advisers in the press.

But when President Joe Biden signed his administration’s $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure into law on Monday, it was Vice President Kamala Harris who was by his side.

After walking onto the White House South Lawn – placed between Mr Biden and a union worker – to the tune of “Hail to the Chief”, the vice president delivered brief remarks from behind the presidential seal. As she did so, she praised Mr Biden for his leadership during the months-long debate that led to Monday’s ceremony.

“We would not be here today were it not for your leadership, Mr President. From the very start, you welcomed Democrats, independents, and Republicans to meet with us in the Oval Office. You welcomed ideas. You welcomed debates. All in the service of getting this bill done. And here is what I know to be true, Mr President: You are equal parts believer and builder. And because you are, we are all better off,” said Ms Harris.

The first woman and the first person of colour to hold an office long known as the world’s most famous second banana, Ms Harris’ appearance alongside Mr Biden came amid a slew of negative reporting that has drawn unwanted attention to some of the more public stumbles she has had over her first year in office and highlighted the high-stakes tightrope walk she must take as vice president under the oldest person ever to serve as America’s chief executive.

Neither the White House nor the vice president’s office would say whether the idea to have Ms Harris deliver remarks alongside Mr Biden came from her team or his, but the place she occupied in Monday’s programme is a familiar one for her.

From the early days of Mr Biden’s presidential transition, Ms Harris often played an outsized role in even the most mundane of events. She was frequently the last person to speak before Mr Biden as he introduced cabinet nominees from the Queen Theatre in Wilmington, Delaware, and occupied the same speaking slot at many events during the first months of his presidency. But a source familiar with the early operations the Biden White House told The Independent that Mr Biden’s team put a halt to that practice because it made it appear as if the president wasn’t operating independently.

In more recent months, Ms Harris has been sent away from the White House at key points. When administration officials spent a day cajoling and buttonholing members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus to lock down last-minute support for the bill Mr Biden will sign on Monday, she was 15 miles away on a visit to NASA’s Goddard Spaceflight Centre in Greenbelt, Maryland. And when Mr Biden convened a cabinet meeting to discuss the bill he is to sign into law on Monday, Ms Harris had to attend via Zoom because she was literally an ocean away – in Paris.

Congressional sources also say she hasn’t been nearly as engaged in the legislative process as Mr Biden has been at times, although some attributed that to Ms Harris’s relative inexperience in legislative affairs compared with a president who spent three decades writing legislation as a senator. And according to a recent report by Politico, Democratic insiders aren’t sure if she’s up to the task of running to be Mr Biden’s successor in 2028 or 2024 (if he decides not to run).

“She’s definitely not going to clear the f**king field,” one person described as a “veteran New Hampshire operative” said, according to the report.

Other Democratic Party sources have noticed that the White House’s focus on infrastructure has put a shine on Pete Buttigieg, Mr Biden’s transportation secretary and the only other 2020 primary candidate serving in the administration.

As Secretary of Transportation, Mr Buttigieg will be the man in charge of implementing a significant portion of the Biden infrastructure bill as his department distributes funds for new roads, bridges, and tunnels to states across the country. The former South Bend, Indiana mayor will also serve on a new presidential task force to supervise implementation the infrastructure bill under ex-New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu, while Ms Harris was not among the officials named in the order establishing the body.

Mr Buttigieg also briefly became the face of the administration’s push for paid family leave last month after he became the subject of attacks from prominent figures in conservative media. One former Harris aide expressed some bitterness over the way White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki jumped to his defence after attacks from Fox News host Tucker Carlson. The ex-aide told CNN that there was a racial component to the zeal with which Ms Psaki defended Mr Buttigieg, even as Ms Harris has been the subject of other attacks over her role dealing with “root causes” of migration.

“It’s hard to miss the specific energy that the White House brings to defend a White man, knowing that Kamala Harris has spent almost a year taking a lot of the hits that the West Wing didn’t want to take themselves,” the aide said.

Asked about the recent indicators of discontent from Team Harris, Ms Psaki said such reports “don’t reflect [Mr Biden’s] view or our experience with the vice president”.

The press secretary said Mr Biden selected Mr Harris as VP because “because he felt she was exactly the person he wanted to have by his side as he governed the country”.

“She’s a key partner. She’s a leader, and she’s somebody who has taken on incredibly important assignments, whether it is addressing the root causes of migration in Northern Triangle, or taking on a core cause of democracy in voting rights,” she said.

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