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Biden’s in trouble. That puts more scrutiny on Harris too

Vice President Harris walks onstage at the 2024 Essence Festival in New Orleans on July 6.
Arturo Holmes/Getty Images for ESSENCE
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Vice President Harris walks onstage at the 2024 Essence Festival in New Orleans on July 6.

When Vice President Harris took the stage at the Essence Festival in New Orleans last weekend, she walked the audience through her life story: from growing up the child of Oakland, Calif., parents active in the civil rights movement, through some of the personal experiences that drove her to seek public office.

And she wrapped up her remarks with some lines she hasn’t used much since 2019, when they were a regular part of her stump speech as she sought the Democratic nomination.

“People in your life will tell you, “It's not your time. It's not your turn. Nobody like you has done it before.’ One of the things I love is they'll say, ‘Oh, it’s gonna be a lot of hard work,’” Harris said.

“Don't you ever listen to that. I like to say, I eat no for breakfast.”

President Biden and Vice President Harris at a White House event on artificial intelligence on October 30, 2023.
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President Biden and Vice President Harris at a White House event on artificial intelligence on October 30, 2023.

The revival of this message comes at a moment when Harris is under intense scrutiny because of questions about the age and health of President Biden after he badly stumbled in his debate against former President Donald Trump.

There are calls for Biden to step aside, and for younger Democrats to sprint through a truncated contest to become the party’s nominee for November. That would be a race where Harris, 59, would be a leading contender. She’s already number two on the ticket, and has a national — and international — profile that other Democrats on the bench lack.

Biden has been defiant, saying he intends to stick it out. And Harris has forcefully defended him on television, cutting short any speculation that she would take his place. "Look, Joe Biden is our nominee. We beat Trump once, and we're going to beat him again, period,” she told CBS News.

Whether or not Biden weathers this crisis, Trump and his campaign have signaled they plan to make Harris an issue in the campaign.

They say Biden would be unlikely to make it through a second term, and would hand the keys to the White House to his vice president — who Republicans argue is not qualified for the job. “Vote Joe Biden today – get Kamala Harris tomorrow,” is the Republican line in a new attack ad.

Vice President Harris arrives to deliver remarks on reproductive rights at the University of Maryland on June 24, 2024, the second anniversary of the Supreme Court ruling that overturned <em>Roe v. Wade</em>.
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Vice President Harris arrives to deliver remarks on reproductive rights at the University of Maryland on June 24, 2024, the second anniversary of the Supreme Court ruling that overturned Roe v. Wade.

This line of attack was used in the 2020 race, too

Harris allies say Trump’s ad — which harshly spotlights her laugh — is an example of the kind of racism and sexism she has persistently faced on the national political stage.

“It’s not surprising to see this kind of attack from Trump,” said Karen Finney, a strategist who has worked for many female Democratic candidates.

In 2020, after Biden tapped Harris as his running mate, Trump perpetuated a racist birtherism conspiracy about Harris, saying she didn’t meet the requirements to be vice president, because her parents were born outside the United States.

Finney said Trump has long used the tactic of “othering” women — including Harris — by mocking the sound of their voices to say that “‘There’s something about this person that isn’t like us.’”

President Biden and Vice President Harris view the fireworks on the National Mall from the White House balcony on July 4, 2024.
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President Biden and Vice President Harris view the fireworks on the National Mall from the White House balcony on July 4, 2024.

Democrats celebrated Harris when she was picked for VP

Harris made history on several fronts when she and Biden won in 2020: the first woman in the role, the first Black person, the first Asian American person, the first graduate of a historically black college.

The daughter of an Indian mother and Jamaican father, Harris was a prosecutor who rose to become California’s attorney general.

She had made a national name for herself as a senator asking tough questions of Trump administration officials and nominees, including the televised confirmation hearings for Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh.

Early stumbles fed doubts about Harris

But being first — and managing lofty expectations — meant Harris was under "a magnifying glass" compared to her predecessors, said Rachel Palermo, who worked for Harris for the first few years of the administration. "I always felt like she had to overperform to get an average review," Palermo said.

Vice President Harris waves as she boards Air Force Two in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., on March 23, 2024.
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Vice President Harris waves as she boards Air Force Two in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., on March 23, 2024.

And it took time for Harris to come into her own in a role where remaining in the background is part of the job description. “You have to learn your way around the house before you start moving furniture. I think Kamala Harris has been learning her way around the house in a new role,” said Democratic pollster Terrance Woodbury, founder of HIT Strategies.

“Now we see her beginning to start moving furniture. And I think that's a role that that Americans have been wanting to see more of from her”

Early on, Harris struggled to find her footing. One of her first assignments from Biden was to tackle the intractable root causes of migration, and her first foreign trip was to Guatemala and Mexico City. She was criticized for going nowhere near the southern U.S. border, until weeks later.

But in a television interview with NBC’s Lester Holt, she misstepped with a defensive, flippant answer to why she hadn’t first visited the southern U.S. border, an exchange that overshadowed her work on the issue.

Harris also took on the issue of voting rights, an issue where she gave lofty speeches but one where real legislative solutions were impossible, given the deeply partisan divides in Congress.

There were a series of staff shake-ups, and Harris often seemed uncomfortable and stilted in the limelight. Republican critics mocked her not only for what she said, but how she said it.

Harris’ approval ratings remained persistently low — as did Biden’s. Even some Democrats wondered if she ought to stay on the ticket for 2024: the theory was that a more popular running mate could do more to quell voter concerns that Biden, 81, was too old for another four years in the job. Instead, from the start, the re-elect branded itself as the Biden-Harris campaign.

Vice President Harris boards Air Force Two in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on March 22, 2024.
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Vice President Harris boards Air Force Two in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on March 22, 2024.

The Supreme Court’s abortion ruling was a turning point

The vice president was on her way to an event about maternal health when she learned that the Supreme Court had struck down Roe v. Wade, the constitutional right to an abortion.

“We were in the car and she was reading the majority opinion line by line,” recalled Rohini Kosoglu, who was a long-time adviser to Harris. “She rewrote her entire speech from scratch, noting to us that it was not solely a woman’s issue. At the heart of this was a health care crisis.”

Harris, who had long championed reproductive rights, now had a clear mission.

“We have been on the frontlines of this fight for many years, all of us in this together. And now we enter a new phase. There is nothing hypothetical about this moment,” she told a crowd at the 2022 Emily’s List gala.

Vice President Harris and President Biden at a rally at Girard College in Philadelphia on May 29, where they launched a nationwide campaign to court black voters. (Photo by Andrew Harnik/Getty Images)
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Vice President Harris and President Biden at a rally at Girard College in Philadelphia on May 29, where they launched a nationwide campaign to court black voters. (Photo by Andrew Harnik/Getty Images)

It was an issue where Harris brought a passion and ease to the discussion that Biden — a devout Catholic — has been unable to muster.

And it was an issue voters cared deeply about. The White House put her front and center, rallying the troops, leading round tables across the country, meeting with patients, doctors, and advocates. And when Democrats pulled in better-than-expected results in the November 2022 midterms, that was, in part, credited to Harris.

Harris has continued to be the main messenger on the issue ever since, inviting abortion providers to the White House and even visiting a clinic that provides abortions and other reproductive care — making history as the first president or vice president to do so.

Harris has become a liaison to young Democrats and voters of color

Harris has quietly worked on building foreign policy experience over the past few years. She has met with more than 150 world leaders, represented the White House at key meetings of global leaders on Ukraine and climate, and traveled to 21 countries as vice president.

Vice President Harris gives an address to youth gathered on Black Star Square in Accra, Ghana, on March 28, 2023.
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Vice President Harris gives an address to youth gathered on Black Star Square in Accra, Ghana, on March 28, 2023.

Rashad Robinson, who has known Harris since she was California's attorney general, traveled with her to Ghana as part of a U.S. delegation. "I felt like the VP was in her zone" on the trip, Robinson said, describing the crowd of thousands who packed Accra's Black Star Square to see her.

"You know, she's the first to take on this role and no one's looked like her or had her story or her background. And I believe a lot of folks had to catch up," said Robinson, president of Color Of Change.

But Harris has changed, too. "I do feel like just seeing her out in public and speaking, there's just a level of comfort and ease that is there that just looks and feels different from the earlier days," Robinson said.

Harris has more forcefully called for a ceasefire in Gaza before Biden did – while her positions were in line with his policy, her emphasis was seen as more savvy by Democrats concerned that Biden’s unqualified support for Israel could erode his support on the left.

Harris has also tried to connect with young voters and voters of color, parts of the Democratic base where Biden has struggled. Harris has invited more women and minorities to meetings at the White House, visited dozens of college campuses and has continued to speak at countless Black and Latino conventions.

“She was really interested in hearing about the direct experiences of women who, frankly, have been really invisible in administrations, and, in general, in politics,” Ai-jen Poo, the co-founder of the National Domestic Workers told NPR in early 2022. Poo had met with Harris on four different occasions during the vice president’s first year in office to discuss issues concerning women in the workforce.

Vice President Harris observes a moment of silence for victims of the 2018 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., on March 23, 2024.
Drew Angerer/AFP via Getty Images / AFP
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Vice President Harris observes a moment of silence for victims of the 2018 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., on March 23, 2024.

Harris has also played a leading role on gun violence prevention, overseeing a new White House office. Before it was torn down, she visited the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School building where 14 students and 3 adults were killed in a mass shooting in 2018.

Gun violence prevention is among the top three issues in this election for more than a quarter of voters aged 18-34, according to a Tufts poll.

Vice President Harris and President Biden depart the East Room after delivering remarks on artificial intelligence at the White House on Oct. 30, 2023.
Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images / AFP
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Vice President Harris and President Biden depart the East Room after delivering remarks on artificial intelligence at the White House on Oct. 30, 2023.

Harris’ fans see her as an heir apparent. But some Democrats have other ideas

Harris ran for the Democratic nomination against Biden and a crowded field, but short on money and down in the polls, her campaign fizzled and she dropped out of the race two months before anyone had even started voting in the 2020 primaries.

But this time around, she’s expected to be a bigger force — especially if Biden pulls out the race, creating a truncated nomination process. She would come into that party battle with an advantage. Her name is already on the ticket, and she has more name recognition than any other potential candidate.

And she has built up relationships with supporters in battleground states, making more than 60 trips in total this year, touting the accomplishments of the Biden administration and warning against a return to Trump.

Vice President Harris takes selfies with guests during an Independence Day event on the South Lawn of the White House on July 4, 2024.
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Vice President Harris takes selfies with guests during an Independence Day event on the South Lawn of the White House on July 4, 2024.

David Milam, a Democratic voter from Purcellville, Va., says he’s been a fan since he saw Harris in the Kavanaugh hearings. “I liked her ability to get at the truth, to have that prosecutorial ability to be tough,” Milam said.

He says he supports Biden and will vote for him if he stays in the race. But after the debate — which he called “distressing” — he hopes Biden will be convinced to pass the baton to Harris.

There has been speculation about other potential candidates — including a long list of Democratic governors — who could challenge Harris as heir apparent.

Mini Timmaraju, president of Reproductive Freedom for All, said she wants Biden to stay in the race — but if that changed, she said it would be "political malpractice" for Democrats to go with someone other than Harris, who she said galvanizes support from women and from voters of color.

"She is leading on the number one persuasion issue in this country: reproductive freedom," Timmaraju said. "She's not just the top spokesperson — she's been the person leading the strategy."

Vice President Harris campaigns in Landover, Md., on June 7, 2024.
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Vice President Harris campaigns in Landover, Md., on June 7, 2024.

Black women are a key part of the Democratic party base, and prominent Black woman have said they expect Harris to ascend.

“She's sitting right there as somebody who has been in the White House, as somebody who already has the name recognition, who's already out on the trail,” said Rep. Summer Lee, D-Pa., in a recent interview, explaining the "optics of pushing aside a Black woman" would be a mistake for the party.

Adrianne Shropshire, the executive director of BlackPAC, a group that works with Black voters, said overlooking Harris would be offensive. "The thing they don't want to do is jump over the Black vice president. It's absurd,” she said.

“There are many things that would be suicidal for the Democratic party. That is one of them."

Copyright 2024 NPR

Asma Khalid is a White House correspondent for NPR. She also co-hosts The NPR Politics Podcast.
Deepa Shivaram is a multi-platform political reporter on NPR's Washington Desk.
Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.