Kamala Harris

Vice President Kamala Harris speaks during the Freedman Bank Forum in Washington, Tuesday, Dec. 14, 2021. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

New year, new start for Kamala Harris?

Last year should have been one of triumph for the vice president. She was a pathfinder as the first female, Black and Asian occupant of the office. Her ascendancy wiped away the memories of her faltering 2020 presidential campaign, which ended before the election year even began. She was second-in-command to a man who had held the position before, who understood its frustrations and, just as important, understood its potential.

And the whole enterprise turned out to be a bit of a dud.

She didn’t accomplish much, she didn’t burnish her image, she didn’t carve out achievements on her own. But in fairness, one of the reasons she didn’t stand out was because she was in a position where the job description calls for a political figure to stand aside.

Her role, and the role of the vice presidency more broadly, are works in progress. As Joe Biden’s association with Barack Obama demonstrated, a relationship as potentially important as the one between the only two people directly elected by the public isn’t set in the first year, but can develop as their term advances.

Biden knows, for example, that Harris can’t be a legislative closer the way he was; her relationships in the Senate are slim, the result of having, literally, one-ninth the time in the chamber that he had before moving to the vice president’s mansion on Observatory Circle. But he wasn’t a historic figure the way she is.

And so far — overlooked by most commentators — she has sailed through the difficult waters of executive branch politics far better than some of her predecessors.

Gerald R. Ford, who held the position briefly under a Watergate-besieged Richard M. Nixon, essentially dumped his vice president, former Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller of New York, in his first year. Bill Clinton and Al Gore grew estranged in their second term, and Dick Cheney was less influential in the second term than he had been in the first, in part a reaction to talk that he had molded an “imperial vice presidency” after the 2001 terrorist attacks.

By contrast, Ronald Reagan grew in respect for George H.W. Bush as time progressed, and Obama declared Biden “the best vice president America ever had,” which might have been a presidential fib but a tactful one delivered in the nostalgic low of their last eight days in office.

Biden surely would deliver a similarly tactful public assessment of his vice president, but privately likely would be inclined to think that the final verdict on Harris has not yet been sealed.

“She’s had missteps and there’s talk about staff problems, but by all appearances she still has a lot of access to Biden and is involved in a lot of public advocacy,” said Joel Goldstein, a Saint Louis University Law School expert on the vice presidency. “There’s no reason why she can’t have a successful vice presidency. It comes down to what she learns and how she helps the president solve his problems.”

The vice presidency is, to be sure, an awkward position, and most of the 48 men who preceded her were in the same gloomy situation, though Harris by virtue of her identity as a visible minority has been a special target of enmity.

Lyndon Johnson chafed in the job — so less powerful, so less interesting, so less rewarding than being Senate majority leader — and may actually have been clinically depressed during the 1961-1963 period; his top aide had to push him — to cajole a stubborn, embittered man — to deliver a speech on civil rights at Gettysburg that may have been his finest vice-presidential moment. Hubert H. Humphrey was an ebullient and effective senator but a sullen and humiliated vice president; Walter F. Mondale once told me that the position, which he believed his mentor never should have accepted, crushed Humphrey’s spirit and wounded him psychologically forever.

The activist vice president is a modern concoction, created by Mondale under Jimmy Carter (1977-1981) and Gore under Clinton (1993-2001). Dan Quayle, who served under the elder Bush, doesn’t fit this model, and personal loyalty and political help were the principal assets taken to the office by Bush and Biden, though Obama’s understudy did push the president on gay rights and pushed back on the mission to kill Osama bin Laden. (He prevailed on the first, was overruled on the second.)

Mondale, who had witnessed Humphrey’s despair and had studied how forlorn Rockefeller had been as Ford’s vice president, accepted the position from Carter only after lengthy negotiations assuring he would have unlimited access to the president and to all the information that Carter received. He also won a promise to have a regularly scheduled Monday lunch when the two both were in town.

“He wanted a substantive role and not a ceremonial role,” Richard Moe, who was Mondale’s chief of staff and who drafted the 11-page memo setting out the Minnesotan’s hopes for the office, said in an interview. “It worked because Carter thought the vice presidency as it was conceived was a wasted asset.”

Indeed, Carter actually went further, offering Mondale an office in the West Wing and telling his staff members they should regard a request for information from Mondale as a request from him. Biden had a similar arrangement with Obama, though Karine Premont, deputy director of the Centre for United States Studies at the l’Universite du Quebec at Montreal, argues that the appointment of Biden, with his soothing temperament and easy Capitol Hill relationships, was a reaction to the aggressive vice presidency of Cheney.

Biden almost certainly had politics in mind when he chose Harris; her selection was a signal of his commitment to diversity, and, following the California senator’s aggressive debate challenge to Biden for his views on busing, of his instinct for forgiveness. But he also almost certainly had the Biden model for the vice presidency in mind.

His prescription for the job: Be supportive but not aggressive, confident but also compliant, dutiful but not demanding.

So the truth may be that Biden has exactly the vice president he wants, the vice president he needs — and the vice president he was.

North Shore native and Pulitzer Prize winner David M. Shribman is the former executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

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