Vice President Kamala Harris is back on the road, something she’s been eager to do after spending the first part of her tenure largely in Washington.
In the past week alone, Harris has traveled to the battleground states of Florida, Pennsylvania and North Carolina, as well as New Jersey, laying out the administration’s accomplishments, shoring up support with state lawmakers on abortion and attempting to rally voters ahead of the November midterms.
She’s also talking to the media more: After giving few interviews in her first 18 months in office, she’s done newsmaking sit-downs with CNN, NPR and Face the Nation in recent weeks. Last week, I traveled with Harris to Florida and asked the vice president big questions about her leadership, the midterms, and what she sees as threats to freedom and liberty at this moment in our democracy.
Harris’ increased visibility and engagement come at a crucial moment for Democrats, as President Joe Biden’s approval rating has been steadily dropping, falling to a new low this week amid lingering inflation woes. While the job of vice president has rarely been particularly high profile, that she is a historic first in the position has put her role in the spotlight. Voters — especially Black voters, the Democratic Party’s most loyal and consistent base — have said they want to see more of her.
The shift in strategy — the increased trips to key midterm states, being the face of the administration’s response to the Supreme Court decision that ended a federal right to abortion, doing sit-down interviews — comes after a series of personnel changes on Harris’s staff.
The people who are around her now seem to be encouraging her instincts to get out of Washington and talk to people. It’s a chance for her to shape her image and to partake in the kind of retail politics that Biden is better known for. It’s an opportunity to reach audiences with a message touting what the administration has done and framing what is undone as unfinished business, not broken promises.
“It’s our responsibility to remind folks that they put in an order that certain things were going to take place, and for the first year and a half a lot of that has happened, but there’s still more to do,” Harris told me in Orlando.
Over the past month, Harris has been intentional about addressing Black voters, appearing in New Orleans at the annual Essence Festival, with her sorority sisters at the Alpha Kappa Alpha Boulé in Orlando and the NAACP convention in Atlantic City.
Many Black voters have been frustrated with legislative setbacks on police reform and voting rights. But Harris has remained relatively popular with Black voters, with nearly 56 percent saying they have a favorable opinion of her, according to the most recent YouGovAmerica poll.
With these crowds, Harris is asking for their votes and reminding them of the long game Black Americans have often had to play in the struggle for equality. And her remarks, which highlighted the administration’s efforts on Black maternal health, gun safety reform and record funding for historically Black colleges — plus pointed to the need to pass federal voting rights legislation — were met with cheers and applause in environments that had the air of a homecoming. (Harris is also a lifetime member of the NAACP.)
“This is what people wanted when they stood in line to vote,” Harris told the crowd in Orlando.
The Florida trip, which also included a meeting with state lawmakers on abortion protections and ended with Harris meeting with military leaders and service members to discuss national security, was a snapshot of the kind of work — and warm reception — that serves as an important reminder that in politics, showing up counts.
Harris suggested that she’s just getting started as the general election comes more into focus.
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“I plan on traveling around our country, talking to folks, listening to folks,” said Harris. “Women and men are upset, angry and terrified about the rights that are being taken.”
Her message to a lot of groups, she says, is one of solidarity: “They’re not alone.”
Harris has been the chief voice on abortion protections since the June 24 Dobbs decision, meeting with faith leaders, health care providers, state attorneys general, technology experts, and local lawmakers on the policy and messaging response. An AP-NORC poll published this week showed that more than half of Americans disapprove of the ruling, including 80 percent of Democrats and 58 percent of women.
Asked about Democratic voters’ frustrations with the administration’s response to a fast-emerging post-Roe reality, Harris declined to commit to any specific actions but pivoted to November’s midterm elections.
“We are all, I think, aware that we need to take advantage of every tool that is available to address this, both in terms of the crisis of women in states around our country who are trying to figure out how they can have access to the care they need right now, to what we need to do to elect a pro-choice Congress,” Harris said.
While House Democrats last week passed bills to codify abortion rights without Republican support, the legislation almost certainly lacks the 60 votes it would need to pass in the Senate. Biden and Harris have both said they support a filibuster carveout for abortion and voting rights — but Democrats don’t have the votes for that either. Asked whether voters should expect to see more of her as the president of the Senate on Capitol Hill in the coming months, pushing for federal abortion protections, Harris remained focused on changing the political atmosphere.
“We need to elect two more senators who are willing to vote for that legislation,” Harris insisted. “We don’t have the numbers in Congress. There are people who are pro-choice who would not make the decision for themselves but agree that the government should not make that decision. That’s all we’re asking.”
This is the vice president we are seeing now. She talked about how varied her days are; her schedule in Florida that day, she said, was “typical” in its variety. In another example, Harris ticked off a day that began with her daily intelligence briefing with the president, followed by hosting the Mexican president for breakfast at her residence, to an event discussing the American Rescue Plan.
“All of these things are our every day, and it’s going from one subject to another,” she said. “This might sound corny, but it’s what is uplifting the American people, whether it be national security or increasing our benefits and the ability of our workforce to have good-paying jobs and take care of our families, or what we need to do to preserve and fight for fundamental constitutional rights around freedom and liberty. I see it as all being connected in one way or another, certainly in terms of who I intend and hope to benefit.”
On Friday, Harris will stop by the National Urban League conference in Washington before heading to Virginia this weekend to meet with state lawmakers for a roundtable discussion on reproductive rights.
Her efforts on the stump are an attempt to rebuild the winning coalition that swept her and Biden into office in 2020. By showing up and reminding core Democratic groups what the administration is doing, the vice president’s pitch gets beyond the “go vote” message and fundraising emails that were maligned by activists in the days after the Dobbs decision.
On Thursday, before heading back to Washington after her day in North Carolina, Harris surprised members of Omega Psi Phi fraternity holding their Grand Conclave in Charlotte, stopping by to deliver the unique brand of salesmanship her lived experience offers. The men rose to their feet, cheering and clapping as the vice president entered the room.
“You can see a direct link between what Omega Psi Phi and so many others did to increase voter turnout,” Harris said. “I’m here to thank you and to ask you that we continue to educate — as is the history of this so important fraternity — to always educate the people about what is at stake … to inspire people to see what is possible, and to also remember who we are, who we have been and who we’re going to be.”
Her approach, if successful, has the potential to help salvage the administration’s priorities and put to rest concerns about whether the Biden-Harris ticket should again be Democrats’ choice in 2024. In many ways, it’s a strategy that is not just about her being seen, but about whether voters believe she and the president see them.