Where in the World is Kamala Harris? | Opinion

When a president pushes big legislative initiatives like Joe Biden's trillions for "infrastructure," his vice president always heads out on the trail, going from city to city, hyping the plan. The Veep holds rallies, appears on news shows eager for exclusive interviews and meets with local bigwigs. It's all designed to build momentum and spur public support.

Joe Biden desperately needs that support right now as he works to pass his signature infrastructure bill. So where in the world is Kamala Harris? She appears to be hiding in the White House, on instructions from Biden's team. It would be easier to find Jimmy Hoffa's body.

Why the disappearing act?

Because Kamala Harris is not an effective politician. The Biden team is keeping her out of sight because she would do nothing useful to build support for the administration or its latest initiative. Polls show she is personally unpopular, and the approval numbers keep dropping as voters see more of her. As a former prosecutor, Harris should be able to present her positions smoothly and answer questions effectively. She hasn't done so thus far. She makes almost as many gaffes and misstatements as the president himself, whose record will stand as long as Guinness publishes its book. Her press conferences during her trip to Guatemala and Mexico provoked public ridicule. In short, Kamala doesn't just present one or two problems for the White House. She presents a whole slew of them, none easily fixed.

It was these problems that forced Harris to end her much-touted campaign for president before the first primary votes were cast. Lots of candidates fall short, but what's so striking about Harris' failure is that she garnered so little support despite checking all the boxes Democrats love. She is a relatively young minority female—a fresh face on the national scene—who could raise campaign cash easily in her rich home state, where she is part of the political establishment. All boxes checked. Yet, by the time she left the Democratic primaries, she was polling at zero.

If Kamala Harris were still in the Senate, her shortcomings wouldn't matter much for the country. But Joe Biden selected her to be his vice president, and he does not appear healthy. The problem is not only physical; it's mental. At a CNN Town Hall last week, Biden gave this response when asked when COVID-19 vaccines would be available for children under 12:

They are doing the examinations now, the testing now, and making the decision now. When they are ready, when they've done all the scientific that needs to be done to determine—children at ages three, four, five, six, seven, and eight, they, in fact, are—all have different makeups. They're developing. They're trying to figure out whether or not there's a vaccination that would affect one child at such and such an age and not another child. That's underway. Just like the other question that's logical and I've heard you speak about it, because you all—I'm not being solicitous, but you're always straight up about what you're doing. And the question is whether or not we should be in a position where you are—why can't the experts say we know that this virus is, in fact—is going to be—or, excuse me—we know why all the drugs approved are not temporarily approved, but permanently approved. That's underway, too.

That's not just confusing. That's nonsense.

Vice President Kamala Harris
US Vice President Kamala Harris host a discussion with Native American community leaders about voting rights, at the Vice President's Ceremonial office in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building in Washington, DC, on July 27, 2021. Nicholas Kamm / AFP/Getty Images

As outsiders, we can't be sure if that verbal gumbo was just Joe Biden's old gaffe machine at work. But many observers think the problem is worse than that. Polls show more and more people think Biden is not in charge of his own presidency. Well over half of all American voters (and about one-third of Democrats) do not believe President Biden is "fully executing the duties of his office." That assessment may be wrong, but the doubts themselves are disturbing in a constitutional democracy.

Why so disturbing? Because the president—whatever his mental condition—wields such enormous power. He does more than head one of three branches of our federal government. He is by far our country's most important political official, and has been since the New Deal vastly expanded presidential powers.

The branch he heads may be called "Executive," but the president does far more than execute laws passed by Congress. He initiates most of them, shapes the necessary compromises, blocks any bills he opposes, modifies the laws he approves with "signing statements" and issues countless executive orders. No one can do all that by himself. He relies on White House staff, which, unlike cabinet officers, are appointed without congressional approval or oversight hearings. The assumption is that the president is truly in charge of this unelected staff and firmly controls his own administration. Since the White House staff is appointed, not elected, this assumption is what keeps the executive branch consistent with our democracy. That's why it is so troubling to read polls showing half the country no longer believes the president is "fully executing the duties of his office."

Biden needs to address those widespread doubts. How he does so is up to him. One possibility would be to take a standard cognitive test, such as the Montreal Cognitive Assessment, a 30-point exam for memory impairment, and release the results to the public. So far, President Biden has declined to take such a test or explain how else he will assuage public doubts. Those doubts will only deepen each time the president loses his train of thought or stumbles into another serious gaffe.

Questions about Biden's cognitive health bring us back to the vice president. If Joe Biden has to move out of the Oval Office before his term ends, then Kamala Harris will move in. That's not a happy prospect for a country that has no confidence in her abilities, dislikes her personally and is already facing a sea of troubles. Let's hope she remains hidden somewhere in the White House and her promotion remains hypothetical.

Charles Lipson is the Peter B. Ritzma Professor of Political Science Emeritus at the University of Chicago, where he founded the Program on International Politics, Economics, and Security. He can be reached at charles.lipson@gmail.com.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.