When Joe Biden was narrowing down his list of potential vice presidential picks, one requirement was clear: His running mate on the Democratic ticket would need to be equipped to be an equal partner in the White House.
That line of thinking—that Biden, who at age 77 is a possible one-term President, needed a veep who would be a Democratic leader in her own right—led the nominee to choose Sen. Kamala Harris.
“In making a judgment about Sen. Harris’s talent, Biden must have made a judgment that they could work well together,” says Joel Goldstein, the author of The White House Vice Presidency: The Path to Significance, Mondale to Biden.
But what role would Harris play in a Biden administration? The Biden campaign declined to comment, but a few factors, as Election Day approaches, provide a sense of what to expect.
Biden’s approach to his vice president will certainly be guided by his own experience in the role under President Obama. As vice president from 2009 to 2017, Biden played an active role as an adviser and political ally to the President. The former Delaware senator continued a tradition established by Vice President Walter Mondale, who set a new model for the expanded purview of the role under President Jimmy Carter, according to Goldstein.
Biden took on tasks including negotiating budget deals—including notable one-on-one budget negotiations with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell—implementing economic stimulus plans in the aftermath of the 2008 recession, and traveling to represent the United States on visits important to U.S. foreign policy.
Biden and Obama also had an “unusually close relationship”—even when compared to prior vice presidents who wielded significant influence in the White House. That personal relationship played a critical role in Biden maintaining his influence through eight years of the administration.
Biden, however, almost always stuck to the precedent of allowing the President to set the policy agenda—something he is likely to also want from his own No. 2.
Harris has said that she would be a “partner” to Biden. In his vice presidential pick announcement, Biden said he was “proud…to have her as [his] partner in this campaign.” That language suggests that both politicians hope to continue the hands-on vice presidential model.
In her nearly four-year career in the Senate, Harris developed a high profile as a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee and took on a range of issues. Her Senate tenure began with a speech about the DREAM Act and immigration reform. Harris competed against Biden for the Democratic nomination in a wide field; in that campaign, she emphasized the needs of women and people of color, and issues she worked on in the Senate. Those topics could continue to be areas of interest for her in a presidential administration.
Harris would be the first Black person, first South Asian person, and the first woman to serve as U.S. vice president; she is likely to deliver speeches and talk about issues related to gender as she builds her international profile, Goldstein says. Harris has also been a vocal supporter of the Black Lives Matter movement and is likely to lead on issues of racial justice in concert with her boss.
As the country’s oldest-ever President, Biden might be unlikely to travel as much as some of his predecessors. Harris could take on much of that international travel as she builds her own profile on the global stage, Goldstein says.
Some tasks that Biden took on as VP, Harris is unlikely to handle—in large part because Biden himself would probably continue those interests. “Biden likes dealing with Congress, with politicians, in a way that President Obama didn’t. It wouldn’t be surprising to me if Biden does more of that type of interaction,” Goldstein says. “I’d be surprised if Sen. Harris is the person negotiating with congressional leaders.”
But Harris is likely to take on a role similar to Biden’s own as an adviser and the “last person in the room” during any major decision, Goldstein says.
Biden’s vice presidential pick was so consequential in large part because many saw his choice as anointing the next leader of the Democratic Party. Following one term of a Biden administration, Harris could very well end up as the leading candidate for the Democratic nomination in 2024. Her record as vice president would set the tone for a future presidential run—as it would for Vice President Mike Pence, were he to run in a future election.
“Being the vice president,” says Goldstein, “is the best springboard to a presidential candidacy there is.”
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