Election 2020

Biden Plans to Make Harris as Powerful a Veep as He Was Under Obama

The presumptive Democratic nominee was one of the most impactful vice presidents ever.

Senator Kamala Harris questions Attorney General William Barr as he testifies in Washington on May 1, 2019, during the hearing to discuss the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.
Senator Kamala Harris questions Attorney General William Barr as he testifies in Washington on May 1, 2019, during the hearing to discuss the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post via Getty Images

If she is elected along with her running mate, Joe Biden, Kamala Harris will be no ordinary vice president—and that goes well beyond her historic selection as the first Black and South Asian American woman to back up a major party ticket. On the contrary, Biden plans to model her role on the extraordinarily influential part he played himself for eight years as Barack Obama’s vice president, according to a senior Biden advisor.

The terms of the relationship will plainly be somewhat different. Obama, who took office in January 2009, was a freshman senator with very little experience in foreign policy; as a consequence, the new president deferred to Biden on a wide range of foreign-policy issues. Biden told me in a 2010 interview that, to his continuing surprise, Obama decided to “turn over big chunks” of policy to him to handle on his own. And “he doesn’t check back,” Biden added, whether it was a question of negotiating withdrawal from Iraq or overseeing the economic recovery act. Biden often used the phrase “Barack and I” without diffidence.

At an early meeting, Biden recalled in the interview, “All of sudden, he stopped. He said, ‘Joe will do Iraq. Joe knows more about Iraq than anyone.’ … The Recovery Act, he just handed it over.” (Biden responded by getting three key Republican votes from his old Senate colleagues for the 2009 stimulus, earning Obama’s praise.) Though Obama didn’t always listen to his veep—rejecting Biden’s advice at first against a severely scaled-down presence in Afghanistan and his initial opposition to the raid on Osama bin Laden in 2011—Biden said in a campaign speech in 2012: “I literally get to be the last guy in the room with the president. That’s our arrangement.”

That’s a significant factor in a town where power is measured in minutes of presidential face time. Biden handled so many issues, according to various Obama administration sources, that when the national security team left the Oval Office, he was often left alone chatting with Obama because he needed to be part of the discussion when the economic team arrived for its briefing. Biden would also often sit down with Obama in the residence before an important National Security Council meeting. 

Biden and Harris may have a lot more work to do in building trust than Obama and Biden did. During a rocky primary season, Harris stung Biden by criticizing him harshly on issues related to his votes on racial segregation. And in this case Harris is the inexperienced first-term senator, while Biden has nearly five decades under his belt as a national figure. But when asked whether a President Biden would try to give his own veep the same role he once had, a senior Biden advisor told Foreign Policy in an email: “Unequivocally, yes.”

Biden, a former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee who has vast experience on many foreign-policy fronts, has made a point of telling voters that he will focus much of his presidency on fixing the damage caused by President Donald Trump to America’s alliances and to international institutions. He will also seek to rejoin the Iran nuclear pact and the Paris climate agreement that Trump rejected. Thus, it is expected that Harris, a former California attorney general and prosecutor, might get a large domestic portfolio—especially when it comes to criminal justice and police reform and outreach to the African American community and to women. There’s little question that her race and gender were key factors in her selection. 

“That division of labor strikes me as the most likely,” said former senior Biden aide Michael Haltzel. “I do think that she, along with Elizabeth Warren, was the candidate most ready to step in as president if necessary. Hence, I wouldn’t be surprised if Biden gave her one or two foreign policy ‘franchises.’” 

Elaine Kamarck, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and former close advisor to Vice President Al Gore, predicted Harris would have a “large legislative portfolio as well as being put in charge of inequality, criminal justice reform, etc.”

“But of course a former VP would pick someone in his own mold. She’s a moderate and well versed enough in foreign policy to take over.”

Another important factor is Biden’s age, 77; he has often described himself as a would-be transitional president, even suggesting he might serve for just one term. Thus, the anointment of Harris, who is 55, instantly puts her at the front of the Democratic Party’s potential successors, possibly as early as the 2024 race.

For most of U.S. history, the vice presidency of the United States didn’t amount to much. It was considered a sleepy, funeral-attending post devoid of most constitutional duties except to play tie breaker in the Senate. Veeps were kept out of the loop, even from cabinet meetings; their main job was to simply be there if the president died.

“Gentlemen, I feel a great difficulty how to act. I am Vice President. In this I am nothing, but I may be everything,” said John Adams, the nation’s first vice president, who later bitterly described his job as “the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived.” 

Thomas Riley Marshall, Woodrow Wilson’s vice president, likened himself to a “man in a cataleptic state” who could not speak or move though he was “perfectly conscious of everything that is going on around him.” John Nance Garner, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s equally slighted No. 2, said the job wasn’t “worth a bucket of warm piss.” Often the veep was chosen to balance a ticket demographically and then forgotten as governance got underway. 

But recent vice presidents, starting with Gore under President Bill Clinton and then Dick Cheney under George W. Bush and finally Biden himself, changed the dynamic. Cheney in particular was deemed to be extraordinarily powerful, especially after the 9/11 attacks, when he orchestrated the case for invading Iraq and prodded Bush to adopt controversial interrogation methods for terrorist suspects that most critics later deemed to be torture. (Biden himself once described Cheney as “the most dangerous vice president in history.”)

In modern times, the vice presidency began to grow in stature, especially as the hair-trigger calculus of the Cold War required presidents to keep their putative replacements informed. “I’d place Biden equal to Gore in power and Cheney, first term, most powerful of all,” Kamarck said. 

Some analysts questioned whether Biden would follow through on his intention to give Harris a large policy role, in part because he has so much more national experience than she does on virtually every front.

“Harris has very short experience in the Senate,” Haltzel, the former Biden aide, said. “So it’s hard for me to see Biden delegating responsibility for major domestic issues/legislation.” 

Obama and Biden had the opposite relationship: Long before he chose him as vice president, the freshman senator from Illinois solicited advice from Biden. At a critical hearing with Gen. David Petraeus in the spring of 2008, for example, it was Biden who counseled then-Sen. Obama to lower expectations for withdrawal from Iraq—an approach that shaped both of their positions on the issue.

“When you have finite resources, you’ve got to define your goals tightly and modestly. I’m not suggesting that we yank all our troops out all the way. I’m trying to get to an endpoint,” Obama said at the hearing, earning plaudits in the press. Biden later told me that exact language was suggested, behind the scenes, by him: “He asked for my advice.”

Biden’s long Senate tenure—he was first elected while the Vietnam War was still raging—and the many relationships he developed across the aisle will also likely lead him to take a decisive role in legislative outreach.

But at a time of deep social unrest, much of it driven by identity politics, Biden clearly needs Harris for political reasons—in particular to help turn out the Black vote during the campaign and then later on to begin to heal the racial and social divisions in the country. After all, Biden picked her, he tweeted, as a “fearless fighter for the little guy.” 

Michael Hirsh is a senior correspondent and deputy news editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @michaelphirsh

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