According to opinion polls, Harris is America’s most unpopular vice-president in recent history
On 20 January, Joe Biden completed one year of his presidency in the US. This has not been a good 12 months for him. The hasty and chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan, inflation at a four-decade high, supply-chain problems that led to empty store shelves during Christmas, failure on his promise to “shut down covid", a record number of illegal immigrants, and last week, an admission that his ambitious social spending plan, the Build Back Better package, had little hope of getting passed in its current form by the American Senate.
But if Biden had a bad time, for vice-president Kamala Harris—she, whose selection as Biden’s running mate sent Indians into paroxysms of delight—the year is best described as an unmitigated disaster. As things stand currently, it seems unlikely that the Democratic Party will support a presidential bid by her in 2024.
Opinion polls consistently find that she is the most unpopular American vice-president in polling history. Even CNN, which, in recent years has been accused of being a Democratic Party/ Biden mouthpiece, ran a damning in-depth piece in November, titled “Exasperation and dysfunction: Inside Kamala Harris’ frustrating start as vice president". Based on extensive interviews with “nearly three dozen former and current Harris aides, administration officials, Democratic Party operatives, donors and outside advisers", the CNN report paints a picture of confusion and ineptitude and gives a sense that she is now being seen as a liability.
Biden handed her a very important but politically-sensitive task that he might not have wanted to handle personally—border control. With Donald Trump gone, and perhaps in response to Biden’s wild assurances during his presidential campaign, illegal immigration across the US-Mexico border has soared. The number of migrants detained in 2021, at close to a million, was twice the number in 2020—Trump’s last year in the White House. ‘Progressives’ in the Democratic Party want all border controls removed, while a majority of Americans, including Latinos, are wary of this.
And how did Harris handle the issue? For three months, she avoided visiting the border, and when asked about this in a TV interview, said: “I haven’t been to Europe either." Critics pointed out that the US did not have a border problem with Europe. Then, after the media carried some photos, she condemned the US Border Patrol’s horseback agents for “whipping" Haitians trying to cross into Texas. This was a blatant untruth, as the photographer had made it quite clear that the agents were twirling their horses’ reins and not whipping anyone. Harris then went to Mexico and Guatemala and warned would-be migrants: “Do not come. Do not come… If you come to our border, you will be turned back."
Harris has often also been accused of “speaking and saying nothing". Recently, asked by a TV interviewer if it was time to change the government’s strategy on covid, she replied: “It is time for us to do what we have been doing. And that time is every day." This is the US vice-president, proverbially “a heartbeat away" from the most powerful position on earth.
But lies, evasions and contradictory statements seem to have been a hallmark of her political career. Her campaign to be the Democratic nominee for the 2020 presidential election collapsed under these weights. She claimed that as attorney-general of California, she had sued Exxon-Mobil (not true); that as San Francisco district attorney, she did not support the reporting of undocumented migrants to federal immigration authorities if they were booked for a crime (not true); and she contradicted herself so many times on healthcare—which is always a burning issue in American elections—that she likely lost credibility on it.
Harris is a career politician with a remarkable felicity for balancing different political interests and ideologies.
A Vox.com analysis points out that as California’s attorney-general (an elected post in the US), “she pushed for programmes that helped people find jobs instead of putting them in prison, but also fought to keep people in prison even after they were proved innocent. She refused to pursue the death penalty against a man who killed a police officer, but also defended California’s death penalty system in court."
It is difficult to figure out from her record what she believes in, politically, if she believes in anything at all, policy-wise, other than furthering her own political interests.
Take, for instance, her claims about how close she is to her Indian roots. Harris has always presented herself as firmly ‘Black’ to the general American public, but she has also discovered her Indianness every time she has run for political office. The result has been some tall tales. That her grandfather P.V. Gopalan was “was one of the original independence fighters in India". But Gopalan was born in 1911, three years after Bal Gangadhar Tilak was sentenced to six years in prison. That Gopalan “held a post in India that was like the secretary of state position in this country (US)". Gopalan was a civil servant whose only international assignment was a brief posting in Zambia.
In recent months, some voices in the US liberal media have alleged that Harris is being targeted because she is a non-Caucasian woman. But the uncomfortable truth may be that the only reason she was chosen as vice-president was precisely that—she was a non-Caucasian woman. Sadly, today it seems that this identity is all she has to offer.
Sandipan Deb is a former editor of ‘Financial Express’, and founder-editor of ‘Open’ and ‘Swarajya’ magazines