More than a decade ago, President Barack Obama marshalled his vice president, Joe Biden, to lead the recovery of the Great Recession. Now, Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, could be in a position to direct his own No. 2, Sen. Kamala Harris, to take on an even steeper economic nosedive.
The size and complexity of this downturn — the worst recession on record — coupled with a once-in-a-century pandemic, is expected to dominate the presidency for whomever takes office in 2021, just as it has for President Donald Trump these past few months. If a Biden-Harris ticket wins, the question is, how much of that could fall to the vice president?
Harris, if Biden is elected, would likely have to take on a combination of the economy and the pandemic, a task that would align with her existing track record of focusing on underserved communities — the exact communities that are hardest hit by coronavirus’ health and economic effects.
“She is someone who thinks about fighting for working families first,” said Daniel Suvor, Harris’ chief policy adviser when she was attorney general of California.
Her views have been criticized by some as lacking in ambition or a strong ideological base, but Harris’ background as a daughter of immigrants growing up in Oakland, Calif., suggests her focus would be on the real-life impact of her policies, Suvor said.
He specifically recalls advising her on immigration-related issues surrounding unaccompanied minors crossing the border when she was California’s attorney general, a role she held from 2011 to her election as senator in 2016.
“She asked that we bring to the next meeting copies of every document that an unaccompanied minor would have to file to get a special immigrant juvenile visa,” Suvor recalled. “She wanted to visualize the entire process in front of her so she could put herself in their shoes.”
Following the Great Recession, Harris’ greatest victory as California’s attorney general came when she took on the five largest mortgage firms to achieve a settlement for California homeowners to the tune of about $20 billion in financial relief.
During her presidential run, before she dropped out of the race in December, Harris focused on economic policy that would help vulnerable and underserved communities. She proposed raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour and tying it to inflation; setting up guaranteed paid sick leave and family leave, including leave for victims of sexual assault; and offering low-wage families access to child care at a cost of no more than 7 percent of their income.
Harris has also proposed that corporations receive “equal pay certification” to prove they are paying employees equally for comparable work under her Paycheck Fairness Act to close the gender pay gap.
Those issues will be key points going into November, as millions of Americans continue to struggle with layoffs and federal benefits that are beginning to dry out. Most of those Americans will be women, who have suffered 54 percent of the job losses from coronavirus since February, who are less likely to have paid sick leave if they’re working in frontline jobs and who are more likely to take on the child care responsibilities at home, an issue that has gained a newfound foothold in the American consciousness.
Latina unemployment was the highest of any group in the nation this year, peaking at 20.2 percent, followed by Black women at 16.5 percent. The slowing return of jobs means the consequences of high unemployment will continue to hurt low-to-middle income families for months.
A recovery doesn’t happen, some economists say, without addressing the issues plaguing those communities.
Heidi Shierholz, director of policy at the Economic Policy Institute and the former chief economist to the U.S. Secretary of Labor during the Obama administration, called the child care component essential and something she expects Biden and Harris to tackle if they win the election.
“Many people have been raising this issue for a very long time but it has always been pushed to the side,” Shierholz said, “Now, it’s just absolutely crucial in order for us to be able to get our economy going again. We cannot bounce back if workers have child care responsibilities on top of their normal jobs.”
Biden has already outlined an extensive, 10-year child care plan that would see $325 billion earmarked for free pre-kindergarten for 3- and 4-year-olds, as well as tax credits to help with the cost of child care for low-income families, among those policies.
Harris, too, has addressed the immediacy of taking action on the economic issues profoundly affecting women.
“Women are shouldering the vast majority of responsibility when it comes to homeschooling and child care and many women are also taking care of their families,” Harris said on a call with reporters in early July. “When we look at pay equity issues, when we look at the types of jobs that women have that pay them less and put them on the front line, when we look at what they’re exposed to in terms of the challenges that they face, both in the context of health care but economic opportunity, the impact on women in the midst of this pandemic is real and it is profound.”
Still, Biden and Harris will have to reconcile some of their differing approaches — with Harris’ positions tending to lean more liberal. Her nearly $3 trillion LIFT Act, for example, would provide low- to middle income workers an annual income tax credit of up to $3,000 for single people, or $6,000 for married couples. In Harris’ view, the law would replace Trump’s 2017 GOP tax bill, going further than what other Democrats — including Biden — have proposed. Conservatives have also criticized her plans as far too expensive.
How much of Biden and Harris’ priorities will reach the finish line will hinge on the makeup of the House and the Senate following the election. The struggle to obtain bipartisan support this summer has stalled a push for an additional round of economic stimulus to families and businesses.
As veep, Harris will have to navigate that torrent at least in some ways similarly to how Biden did when he took on the Great Recession recovery as “Sheriff Joe,” meeting with Republican and Democratic governors and mayors across the country who had a stake in how the country bounced back.
Joel Goldstein, an expert on the vice presidential office and professor of law emeritus at Saint Louis University, said the power of the vice presidency has shifted in recent decades to allow the person in that position more control over interdepartmental issues “where the VP sort of comes in over the various cabinet level officials and tries to coordinate.”
“With COVID-19 where it involves the economy, it involves health, it involves education, transportation, urban affairs, how do you structure life, how do you produce food?” Goldstein said. “It’s really very much an interdepartmental problem.”
And then there’s another reality: That Harris, if she becomes the vice president, would be the first woman in that role. Right now, she’s the first Black woman and South Asian woman to ever appear on a major-party presidential ticket.
There will be pressure on her — and an expectation, even — to address and entertain invitations from groups focused on issues that affect women, Goldstein said, such as groups focused on female representation in science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields or Title IX, which prohibits discrimination based on sex in education or activities that receive federal funding.
Historically, women elected to high office across the globe have been more likely to address issues commonly referred to as “women’s issues” — education, the gender pay gap, reproductive rights and child care — but not always, said Christina Ewig, faculty director at the Center on Women, Gender and Public Policy at the University of Minnesota.
Since coronavirus hit, more Americans are learning how much those issues don’t just affect women, Ewig said. This election will also take place in the context of the last few years, in which there have been large mobilizations for the Women’s March, for the #MeToo movement on sexual harassment and assault and for women in the presidency, with six female candidates in this cycle’s primary.
“Hopefully, as a public, with six women candidates that had very different kinds of platforms and approaches, we see that there is no one way that a woman politician will act or have one particular agenda,” Ewig said. “So that hopefully would free up a woman VP to act on a range of issues, including women’s issues, and not shy away from those issues for fear of being into some category.”
Suvor said Harris has overcome being pigeonholed in the past. (Albeit, some would argue that her challenges in the primary were aided by an inability to orient herself as a moderate or liberal candidate). On the recovery, though, her path seems clear, Suvor said.
To that, he said Harris has a common refrain: “I’m so glad you asked me about women’s issues — I’d love to talk to you about the economy.”