Kamala Harris: “the last voice in the room”

 

Kamala Harris: “the last voice in the room”

What a moment, said Jennifer Rubin in The Washington Post. Even though we’ve known since November’s election that Kamala Harris was going to be the first woman – and first black and South Asian American – to hold the office of vice-president, seeing her take the oath on the Capitol platform last week was still powerfully moving. Even if Joe Biden does nothing else as president, his selection of Harris, whose parents came to the US from Jamaica and India, marks a “leap forward for women of colour”. Every official event, from the wreath-laying at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier to the formal welcoming of foreign leaders, will look different with her there. It can’t help but “recalibrate our assumptions about what a commander-in-chief, one day, might look like”.

Once regarded as little more than a ceremonial role, the vicepresidency has grown in importance since the Nixon era, said Christian Paz in The Atlantic (Washington DC). And Harris’s role in this administration is set to be a particularly consequential one, given that she holds the pivotal tie-breaking vote in the Senate, which is evenly split between Democrats and Republicans. Harris will be helping to formulate legislation, using her “bully pulpit” to champion it, and potentially casting the decisive vote that gets it through Congress. “No vice-president has done all of that before.” The downside to this arrangement is that Harris will have to make sure that she’s around to cast her tie-breaking vote in the upper chamber when it’s needed. That might complicate her foreign travel plans. The last vice-president to preside over a 50-50 Senate was the Republican Dick Cheney in 2001, said Li Zhou on Vox (New York), but he only broke two ties over the few months that the situation lasted. Harris will likely have to do it much more often, owing to the more partisan nature of today’s Senate. She’s also expected to wield considerable influence in the White House. As the political science professor Jody C. Baumgartner puts it, “Vice-presidents are only as powerful as their presidents let them be” – and Biden is apparently keen to take full advantage of her expertise. He has said that Harris, who prior to her four years in the Senate spent more than two decades as a California prosecutor, will be his top adviser – or, as he put it, “the last voice in the room” when key decisions are taken.

Judging by her own ill-fated run for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2019, Harris is going to meet a fair amount of resistance in her new role, said Dan Morain on CNN (Atlanta, Georgia). Some on the Left attacked her back then for not being progressive enough, taking issue with parts of her law enforcement record. Others complained that she was too ambitious. People on the Right, meanwhile, painted her as a radical socialist (after her first debate with Vice-President Mike Pence, Donald Trump referred to her as a “monster” and “unlikeable”). As her biographer, I’d say that Harris “is, on some levels, a work in progress and, no doubt, will fall short of some people’s expectations”. But her mixture of toughness, determination and empathy should certainly stand her in good stead as vice-president.

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