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Kamala Harris this week had clearly, finally, and decisively earned a piece of the action. It sure took long enough.
After two years on the sidelines, carrying garbage headlines and defending some fairly patently indefensible policies, the Vice President merited a good news cycle befitting her role in helping President Joe Biden make inroads with women—specifically, women of color—and delivering him the White House. So this week, the ex-Senator made a quick stop back home in California to help roll out what is being billed as the world’s largest semiconductor site, a direct product of the Biden Administration’s successful push for $53 billion for new tech manufacturing included in last year’s CHIPS and Science Act.
At long last, Harris got to spike a football in her home end zone. It was a subtle sign that the West Wing is finally starting to understand that the—at best—benign neglect afforded to the Office of the Vice President for much of Biden’s term may spell trouble for his prospects next year.
When a sitting President runs for a second term, the role of the Vice President can be a tricky one. It’s as if the voters are asked to cast two ballots: one for the top of the ticket, and one for the back-up plan. It gets even dicier when the incumbent President is the oldest ever to try again.
To be sure, Harris is starting from an unenviable place. For the last two years, leaks and sniping from the West Wing dogged her and her team. Turnover was rampant, morale ebbed more than it flowed, and missteps were amplified by those looking for trouble. Harris, for her part, did herself few favors with some standout flubs during interviews and speeches. Biden’s team did her even dirtier, saddling her with the politically impossible task of dealing with the immigration crisis on the U.S.-Mexican border even as it was unclear day to day whether the White House would treat it as anything more than an annoying hiccup.
Slowly, though, Biden’s team has started to realize they might be unable to stay in power if they can’t use Harris in strategic ways—and move her away from no-win tasks like migration and give her spots where she can credibly make the case. Abortion rights, for one, has given her a sweet spot. Voting rights is another. And, as was the case in her native California, the up-sides of domestic spending plans like the CHIPS Act can give the Silicon Valley workers—and tech donors—reasons to stick with Biden.
All VPs go through such a tension, especially if they have political ambitions of their own. People lacking ambition seldom set up shop on the west front of the West Wing, where the VP’s ceremonial offices are. But usually, the gray-haired old men around an incumbent President realize their own obits are tied to the fortunes of the person sitting in the VP’s office; Biden’s team has sat in those club chairs before but somehow missed that Harris is now the heir to their boss’ own legacy.
At the grand opening in California, Haris spoke effusively about how “semiconductors are the brain of modern technology,” and “essential to every electronic device that we currently use.”
It was all plenty bland, but soaring rhetoric wasn’t exactly needed when Applied Materials’ $4 billion investment is expected to employ 1,500 construction workers to get the 180,000-square-foot facility up and running, and then host 2,000 engineering jobs once open. It represents the single biggest upgrade to American chip capacity of late, and it’s merely one more proof point that the Biden team can cite as it prepares to seek a second term next year. And, there in Silicon Valley, Harris was finally getting cut into the victory laps that the White House for more than two years seemed to routinely deny their own understudy.
It took seemingly forever for the Office of the Vice President to get looped in, but as is the case in Washington, in the words of one of her biggest boosters, “it’s better late than never.” Scoreboards only really matter when the crowds shuffle out of a stadium; anything seen before that is a snapshot that misses the tension of an ongoing contest. Harris at long last getting her due can only be seen as a hint of a reboot in an administration that has for way, way too long missed that one of their biggest assets has been stuck in neutral in the driveway.
From the start, Harris’ relationship with Biden was an awkward one. She made headlines early in the campaign by attacking Biden’s record on desegregation only to concede it was a stunt without substance. Biden’s pledge to pick a woman as his running mate left him with a handful of options, and Harris’ moment to plug into the Biden orbit was far from smooth. The President, frankly, needed Harris far more than she needed him, but she smartly bided her time with Biden, and it’s finally paying off.
In a perverse way, Harris has never had more power inside the cozy boys’ club of Biden’s making. If the President is going to seize a second term, he needs Harris and all that she represents, the doors that she opens, and the symbolism incumbent on her very existence. There is exactly a zero-percent chance he can win a second term without her, the OVP knows this, and is finally starting to flex its clout after two years of patiently watching the team across the alley operate in a cloud of dismissiveness, paranoia, and delusion.
The task at hand now is fixing the fractured relationship between the two political teams that nominally share an interest in having Harris as a player, both now and into the future. To get across the finish line. Biden might have to not only boost Harris in the short term, but fully embrace that his legacy will be wrapped up in her legacy for the balance of his life.
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