CHICAGO — Backstage, as she prepares for a not-so-intimate “fireside chat” about gun safety in front of hundreds of people, Kamala Harris is unscripted and seemingly at ease, no notes or teleprompter in sight.
She’s comfortable offering condolences and counsel to those who’ve lost loved ones to gun violence — who stream in wearing red shirts emblazoned with “Moms Demand Action” or “Students Demand Action.” She holds their hands and looks into their eyes. “We speak their names,” she whispers to one woman. She gently reassures a man clearly anxious about where to stand in the photo line.
All eyes are on her. But that’s been true of Harris for a while now. And the view has not often been kind.
Her tenure as Joe Biden’s No. 2 has not been known for relaxed and warm moments like those in Chicago. Instead, Harris’ term has largely been marked by stilted performances at public events, at odds with the uninhibited interrogator she was known as in the Senate. They’ve fueled whispers about whether she’ll be a drag on the reelection ticket as the 2024 race heats up.
Now her political future, and quite possibly the success of the Democratic ticket in 2024, hinges on a simple question: Is it possible for Kamala Harris to make a second impression?
For Harris, it’s a question that fundamentally misunderstands the point. In her mind, she’s the same person she was when the prevailing narrative of her was that of a star prosecutor, ascendant political talent and even the future of the Democratic Party.
“You could have followed me around in Iowa [ahead of 2020],” Harris told POLITICO in one of two exclusive interviews. “You would have seen the same thing four years ago. It’s always who I’ve been. So I can’t get into people’s heads about why they characterize things as being one way or another. It’s not as though I’ve just found myself. I’ve always been here and never went away.”
But privately, former and current aides acknowledge that her focus at the beginning was on making sure it was clear she was on Team Biden. She spoke in legalese, often seemed cautious and struggled to find issues that highlighted her talents, allies say. They privately, and sometimes publicly, admit the first year and a half was rocky.
Now, there’s a hope the rockiness may finally be behind them. And there is a concerted effort underway to ensure that she not only has the support she needs from the White House but that the broader public can see the side of her that — they believe — has been overshadowed by the toxic elements of D.C. To that end, her aides are trying to remind the public of that person, in part by inviting reporters to witness her behind the scenes.
“It’s always been true that there’s a delta between how people in D.C. view her versus when she’s out doing her thing in the country with the American people. I think D.C. is starting to catch up,” said White House chief of staff Jeff Zients. “I would argue she’s been great throughout, but as she’s really mastered the demands of the job and been through so much already, that experience enables her to perform at an even higher level.”
Harris’ defenders point to a slightly more positive tone in media coverage over the last year or so. To them, coverage was largely about style over substance until Harris took on the issue of abortion. That put her front and center on an issue that not just suited the vice president’s skillset but also one DC was actually talking about.
And now, Harris world feels like there’s a chance to continue resetting her public image heading into 2024.
“The issues where she’s out in front happen to be the ones that people care about the most and that motivate our base,” a Biden campaign aide, granted anonymity because they weren’t authorized to speak publicly, said about Harris’ focus on abortion rights, gun control and civil rights.
People who have known Harris since her California days have long complained about how the vice president wasn’t assigned an early policy portfolio that aligned with her skillset or expertise.
“I understand that you’re in the White House and that it’s not just Kamala Harris, it is an administration,” said Paul Henderson, who worked for Harris in San Francisco when she served as district attorney. “[We were wondering] ‘Where’s ‘The Advocate’ Kamala? Where is the ‘Adversary to Foolishness’ Kamala? Where is the ‘Off script, no, no, I know this,’ Kamala?’”
But a confluence of events has given Henderson and other Harris allies hopes that the person they know has reemerged. They point to her role as an abortion rights advocate in a post-Dobbs world as an example of a political task that plays to her strength. And how she’s taken on fights with Republicans on their own turf — like her recent visit to Florida, where she set her sights on Gov. Ron DeSantis and his state’s new education curriculum that includes teaching a controversial interpretation of slavery.
An image reset is far from certain. Harris’ poll numbers are still underwater, hovering just under Biden’s own low figures. Some Democratic insiders continue to question her place on the ticket, too — always anonymously. And Republicans are not hiding how they plan to elevate her as the campaign gears up. Nikki Haley even crossed out the words “Beat Biden” in the RNC’s loyalty pledge recently, writing in “President Kamala Harris” as the real opponent.
Harris said she’s not fazed by any of it.
“I’m not going to be distracted from my priority around maternal health. I’m not going to be distracted [from] my long-standing commitment to support small businesses knowing that so many, especially minorities and women, don’t have access to capital,” Harris said a day before the Chicago visit from her West Wing office, sitting between a painting of the late Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall and a photo of civil rights activists John Lewis and Amelia Boynton on Bloody Sunday.
“I’m not going to be distracted from an issue like traveling the country because the highest court of our land just took a constitutional right. Otherwise, that stuff will get in your head and debilitate you.”
Those close to Harris say that’s always been her M.O., one that many Black women in public life share: Keep your head down and hope the world will get it at some point. But even steadfast allies admit that’s exactly what has exacerbated the problem.
Behind the scenes, Harris has vented her frustration about the customs of Washington, and the Beltway’s obsession with conventional wisdom, to close allies. At the same time, she accepts the increased scrutiny.
“That’s just what has happened. It’s what it is,” Harris said. “I’m not going to sit here and say, ‘Oh, you know, it’s not fair,’ because I am not new to these things.’”
There has long been a consensus inside Harris’ inner circle that the vice president needs to get out of Washington and hit the road more. More outreach and handshaking; less time on Capitol Hill.
In Chicago, at the “Gun Sense University” conference, she’s attentive, actively listening to people she meets and peppering them with questions. Harris knows that all the eyes in the room are on her. That’s true whether she’s backstage or speaking from a podium in an auditorium.
It’s certain to be the case through the entire 2024 election cycle.
Aides say Harris’ current, more fitting portfolio as the administration’s front person on abortion rights, gun violence, climate change and civil rights will be front and center during the campaign. They view her key constituencies as people of color, especially Black voters, young people and women.
Earlier this month, on the third anniversary of Biden selecting her as his running mate, the campaign released a detailed memo — “Why Vice President Harris Is Invaluable for 2024” — advertising her centrality in its strategy. It also aimed to serve as a tonic to help calm the nerves of some in the Democratic Party still whispering their concerns about Harris running with an octogenarian at the top of the ticket.
Republicans have tried to capitalize on those whispers, using the specter of a Harris presidency as a scare tactic.
“She is a bogeyman that Republicans can use when it comes to pushing their message. A President Harris would be even worse than a President Biden because she campaigned as a progressive fighter and had to moderate herself when she became Biden’s running mate,” said one leading Republican strategist granted anonymity to speak freely.
Harris has heard similar attacks since the beginning of the administration.
“There are so-called leaders who aren’t focused on tackling the issues or challenges this country is facing,” she said. “Instead, they focus on me because they don’t want people to focus on what the Biden-Harris administration has delivered.”
Her allies say that even amid the frustrations of the last two and a half years, they hoped that the 2024 campaign would help change perceptions of Harris.
“I always believed that when we got into the election cycle, she would be more visible and get more praise because she’s a very good campaigner,” said former White House chief of staff Ron Klain, a consistent Harris defender.
Harris again stressed she’s not daunted by outside perceptions.
“Almost all of my career, except my four years in the Senate, I’ve been an executive who had to make the decisions. And I have always understood … that the decisions I make will impact lives,” she said. “It’s not about giving a lovely speech or pushing a bill that may or may not ever get passed.”