(The Hill) — The White House on Monday made a concerted effort to defend Vice President Kamala Harris from media criticism, saying she is an important part of the team and signaling she’ll play a role in promoting the bipartisan infrastructure bill.
The pushback came after a CNN report that cast doubt on the vice president’s standing in the Biden administration and said there were rifts within the Biden-Harris operation.
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It’s one of a few pieces that have appeared in recent weeks that have taken a critical eye of Harris or that have raised questions about her prospects as a potential successor to President Joe Biden as soon as 2024 if he changes his public position and declines to run for reelection. Last week, a Los Angeles Times column’s headline read: “Kamala Harris, the incredible disappearing vice president.”
The officials dismissed talk of a rift as “gossip,” and a number of faces in Biden World offered on-the-record statements or tweets defending the vice president and pouring cold water on any suggestion that she feels constrained.
The White House announced that Harris will visit Columbus, Ohio — the capital of a swing state — on Friday to promote the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill. And White House press secretary Jen Psaki called Harris “a valuable member of our team.”
“The president relies on the vice president for her advice, for her counsel,” Psaki said after she was pressed on the news reports suggesting Harris is unhappy in her position. “She is somebody who is not only taking on issues that are challenging, she is not looking for a cushy role here. No vice president, no president is.”
“The president selected the vice president to serve as his running mate because he felt she was exactly the person he wanted to have by his side to govern the country,” she added.
Outside advisers also pushed back against the onslaught of negative coverage and said Harris’s main objective is to advance the Biden agenda.
“While it’s difficult to stop the endless swipes, past gripes or the inside the beltway second-guessing squad, it’s vital that Vice President Harris continue to take meaningful action in helping President Biden deliver for the American people,” said former Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Donna Brazile.
“It’s untenable for modern vice presidents to succeed in their role as being No. 2. Thus, her number one goal must remain to support the president of the United States,” Brazile said.
On Monday, at least publicly, Harris and Biden seemed as close as ever.
They walked out with one another to the White House signing ceremony for the infrastructure bill. Harris delivered remarks alongside Biden, commending his leadership. Biden thanked the vice president and others for their work and noted that Harris would be among those promoting the bill.
Harris has seen her own approval ratings slide as Biden’s have been in the dumps.
A USA Today-Suffolk University poll out last week showed Harris with an approval rating of 28%, lower than Biden’s 38%.
And supporters say media stories about strife between the vice president and Biden or their camps are not doing anyone favors.
“These stories don’t help anybody. And they don’t matter. All they do is embarrass the vice president, embarrass the president and hurt the party,” said one former Harris staffer who requested anonymity to speak candidly.
The former staffer said it didn’t matter who was doing the sniping but suggested it could have been former staffers or donors who are upset about not having the same level of access to Harris.
The source also pointed out that much of Harris’s staff are Biden people or were picked by Biden aides, which could also contribute to some of the feelings of dysfunction.
“People can be frustrated all they want, but it’s not helpful,” the former staffer said. “It’s not helpful to anybody, and it’s certainly not advancing the vice president’s political position. It makes her look weak.”
Harris just completed what was generally seen as a successful trip abroad to France to help bolster ties between Washington and Paris after a fallout earlier this year over a submarine deal with Australia. And her aides sought to minimize the CNN report as Beltway chatter.
“It is unfortunate that after a productive trip to France in which we reaffirmed our relationship with America’s oldest ally and demonstrated U.S. leadership on the world stage, and following passage of a historic, bipartisan infrastructure bill that will create jobs and strengthen our communities, some in the media are focused on gossip — not the results that the ‘resident and the Vice President have delivered,” Harris chief spokesperson and senior advisor Symone Sanders tweeted.
Harris is presiding over a difficult and expansive policy portfolio that includes immigration and voting rights.
She’s also leading the National Space Council and taking meetings with foreign leaders. While she’s been less visible in Biden’s effort to get the infrastructure bill passed, officials insist she is still playing a meaningful role. Harris was among a group that made calls alongside Biden earlier this month when the White House was trying to get the legislation across the finish line in the House.
As vice president, she would be considered among the front-runners to carry the party mantle should Biden opt not to run again in 2024. But others are also seen as positioning themselves for that race, including Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg.
“There is skepticism among the Democratic establishment that Kamala can be the standard-bearer of the party, and I’m not sure she’s done a lot to dispel that in the last year,” the former Harris staffer said.
At the same time, some Harris allies complained that the White House needs to continue to do more to help position her, especially if she is the heir apparent to Biden should he choose not to run for reelection in 2024.
“Simply put, I think people expected her to have a higher profile,” one ally said. “What happens if she runs in 2024? They’re not helping matters.”
At the briefing on Monday, Psaki put it this way: “I don’t have any predictions of whether she will run, when she will run. I will leave that to her and they do not reflect his view of our experience with the vice president.”
Brett Samuels contributed.