Can Harris Re-Write Her Narrative in Time for ’24?

As Joe Biden prepares to embark on a re-election campaign, Kamala Harris will enter uncharted territory.
As Joe Biden prepares to embark on a re-election campaign, Kamala Harris will enter uncharted territory. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Tara Palmeri
February 27, 2023

Eight months before the 2020 election, when Joe Biden was looking for a running mate who would solidify his coalition, the Democratic strategist Karen Finney and a small group of prominent Black political savants (Minyon Moore and Leah Daughtry, among others) pushed him to choose a Black female running mate. One month later, they specifically made the case for his one-time foe, Kamala Harris

Finney, who is also a CNN commentator, remains a friend of Harris and a member of her kitchen cabinet. She reliably defends the vice president in the wake of stories about turnover in her office, say, or other political challenges. She’s also among a group of powerful female strategists who have met in D.C. to deeply ponder how to rewrite the narrative that Harris is underperforming in her historic role. 

As Biden prepares to embark on a re-election campaign, Harris will enter uncharted territory: She’s on the bottom of the ticket, sure, but she will also be understudying the oldest commander-in-chief in history. Unlike in 2020, she’ll be very much in the political foreground, the subject of scrutiny within her party and brutal attacks from her opponents. I spoke to Finney about the Harris narrative, and how it might be revised before Biden hits the stump.

Tara Palmeri: Greg Craig, White House Counsel during the Obama administration, wrote an op-ed in the Times arguing that Biden should let the delegates at the Democratic convention pick his running mate. He suggests it’s the best way to address fears about Biden’s age and succession. 

Karen Finney: It’s ridiculous. I chalk this up to the sort of inside-the-Beltway parlor chatter we always see. Remember when they talked about if Trump was going to drop Pence? There are always these machinations. President Biden has made it clear he’s running, he’s running with Harris, full stop. All of the rest of this is noise. Having been in this business for 30 years, I’ve seen this movie before. 

Everyone is talking about electability. Her approval rating is lower than his, so naturally some would suggest he should switch it up. 

The vice president’s approval rating is tied to the president’s and the administration. I would remind people inside the Beltway that the conventional wisdom when Joe Biden was vice president was that he would never run for president and couldn’t be elected. They said Barack Obama couldn’t be elected. And people said there’s no way Donald Trump is elected. Oh, and the Red Wave—that was supposed to happen. Of course, with the Red Wave people were not paying attention to women and people of color and young people, who felt very strongly about democracy and reproductive freedom. Everybody was banking on the old way of thinking, and it turns out they were completely wrong. 

Harris is extremely popular with the base of the Democratic party. That’s why Karen Bass had her come to Los Angeles several times to help rev up Democratic turnout. That’s also why they had her come to New York several times. To my mind, I won’t entertain [removing Harris from the ticket]—Black voters would read it as Well, you don’t value what we bring to the table. As Black women, we bring our community out to vote. Are you really going to tell Black voters you’re not interested? 

There’s never been a vice presidency so closely linked to the top of the ticket, in part because there’s never been a president as old as Joe Biden. What’s the bull case for the Harris vice presidency? 

If you look at her record prior to being vice president—as attorney general, as a district attorney, as a senator—she has an incredibly strong record of fighting for people. I did some polling and research for [the PAC] Higher Heights, which worked to elect Black women during the 2020 election. One of the things that we saw in the research was that women from battleground states were very excited about the idea of Joe Biden having a partner with a lived experience that was different. 

I take your question, but I’m not here to make the defensive case. What I’m here to say is that she’s been an excellent vice president. To some degree there’s always these parlor games about the vice president. Sometimes people who have ambitions use talk of running for the presidency to raise money to raise their profile, we see that all of the time. 

On the one hand, this isn’t new. I remember it during the Clinton administration with Al Gore. Each person puts their own mark on the role. One of the things with Gore was his regular lunch with just him and President Clinton. He had a specific portfolio, reinventing government. For Walter Mondale it was about really being an advisor to the president. Throughout history, the role has evolved. I see Kamala Harris evolving the role. On the other hand, she’s completely different, and she’s bringing her own expertise and experience to the role. She’s a historic first.

How is she redefining it? 

Some of it is in the issues. Some of the issues that were in the bipartisan infrastructure bill around lead pipes, electric school buses, and clean water. With Al Gore, it was climate and government. Each person brings in an issue portfolio. It’s why she wanted to take on voting rights, housing, for-profit colleges, and maternal health. For a whole week, the administration talked about maternal health which is a crisis in the country but has never been raised to that level. 

She’s using her platform to raise up voices that you don’t normally see elevated by a vice president. She did an event with disabled Americans and reproductive rights. 

It feels like it’s not breaking through, though.

We don’t always see that in the national press, but in the local press. And that matters. The national press doesn’t always focus on the substance, on her work. It’s all the palace intrigue, instead of talking about her work on the housing crisis or access to capital for small businesses. 

The challenge of the role traditionally is that you don’t hear a lot about what the vice president is doing. Both the White House writ large and our friends in the press, we should be talking more about the substance so that we are feeding that interest and that excitement that people have. Look at what happened around reproductive freedom after the Dobbs decision: she convened leaders around the country and real women, reinforcing this as an issue around freedom and democracy. It dovetailed perfectly with the president’s message on democracy and freedom. You had a real one-two punch. 

You saw it last week, when she went to Munich and delivered this very tough and important message about Russia, speaking to our allies while the president was in Poland. The White House did a briefing talking about that one-two punch. It was a successful week for the administration and an effective delivery of messaging to our allies. Her speech got a bit of lift from the White House. Her voice was a part of the strategy. 

Is the West Wing aware that they need to promote her and give her time to shine? 

These were intentional strategies where they used her to help drive the message, while also lifting up what she was doing so it got more attention. That intentional approach is effective. They will need to do that going forward both in the context of the election and the context of governing. We don’t hear much about the V.P., but part of it is understanding that people want to see more of her, they want to know more about her. It’s got to be different than how you’ve done it in the past. If you don’t meet people where they are in their interest and curiosity, then people are going to say, where is she? No one was asking what’s Dick Cheney doing, what’s Al Gore doing, respectfully. 

But Dick Cheney was the national security brain, Al Gore was climate change, Mike Pence was Trump’s conservative alter-ego, the adult in the room. What is Kamala? 

It’s less just-issue focused. In each of those instances, the person brought something different to the table than the president. She brings different relationships with Congress, she’s a former member of the Congressional Black Caucus, and having been an attorney general, she brings a different experience around how policy in Washington impacts people on the ground. I think she and Joe Biden complement each other. It’s very different to be one of two daughters of a single mother. Her career is around children, women, and working people. She’s doing work on the home mortgage process, environmental clean-up, women’s rights, protecting working people.

Why do you think she doesn’t seem to amass credit for it? 

To some degree that’s the role of the vice president. She has played in much of the success of the Biden-Harris administration. As with all vice presidents, we don’t usually see it because a lot of it happens behind the scenes. It doesn’t get the same level of attention. 

I think you’re going to see more of this. I think they’ve been wise to go for non-traditional interviews, like that PopSugar interview that lets the American people know her personally.

So it’s an optical issue instead of a substance issue?

I think the substance doesn’t get covered. 

It’s even hard for Biden’s substance to break through. 

Right, however, the president can make an announcement and that gets covered. She made an announcement on housing and lowering the costs of F.H.A. loans, and not many people covered that. 

But I don’t think people really cover Biden’s announcements, either. 

I disagree. Early on when she was working on the reproductive rights issue after Dobbs fell, and it was clear that she was going to take it on, I was talking to a reporter on the V.P. beat, who did not know that she was recognized as person of the year by NARAL California. That’s a big deal. There has to be a bit more.

Is that her team? 

They were talking about it. Part of the reason she’s an effective messenger for the administration is because she had a real history with women’s organizations. I remember also having conversations with some of the Washington reporters. I said women are very critical to the Democratic party, and it was sort of dismissed. My intention is not to blame the media. We want to see more on the substance. Your audience is curious about her. I think the White House is recognizing that they need to use more of their resources to focus on what she’s doing and to have that intentionality. 

Can you be prescriptive?

More people. A larger press team that is pushing and driving and previewing it. 

There’s always the fear of overshadowing the president. No one will forget when Biden slipped and announced the Obama administration’s reversal on gay marriage. Does the West Wing have to forget this concern and promote her more than the boss? 

That’s an old concept. She’s not going to overshadow him, she just strengthens his messaging. America is in a different place as a country that is divided. To build a winning coalition, you want all of your best players on the field. In 2024, young voters could outnumber older voters. Who is your audience? Who is your electorate? I do not want to be in this piece saying anything disparaging about the president. I’m a full believer. He has a winning record. I don’t think we would have been able to accomplish the things we’ve been able to accomplish without his experience and wisdom. I put all of this stuff about his age aside. Embrace the strength of this partnership and its ability to deliver for America. Don’t worry about overshadowing.

Should she do more soft press? 

You may see more of that in non-traditional media. You have to balance it, because don’t forget, when they took office, the country was in crisis. 

One of the criticisms of the vice president is that she’s very cautious. 

I see this as someone who is conscious of the weight of the office that she’s in. They took office just weeks after an insurrection. I don’t think there’s a right answer, because if she was doing it differently she would be criticized. There’s a different level of scrutiny. 

What’s with her staff turnover? 

It seemed to get covered more than other parts of the administration. That’s what we see with women. 

It seems like Democrats are more willing to openly question Vice President Harris’s line in the succession. Some say she would definitely be primaried if Biden were to step aside. Even Elizabeth Warren couldn’t say if she should also be on the ticket. 

That’s the moment of politics that we’re in where people say more things on the record. I think a lot of people were disappointed in Elizabeth Warren’s comment. Particularly, some of these stories are filled with blind quotes by people allied with other people. Some of it is normal and just people trying to elevate their profiles and fundraise.