Kamala Harris Says She Is Ready to Serve as Biden Faces Age Scrutiny

Mon Feb 12 2024
Eric Whitman (309 articles)
Kamala Harris Says She Is Ready to Serve as Biden Faces Age Scrutiny

Vice President Kamala Harris was detailing her priorities for the campaign during a flight on Air Force Two early last week when she was asked a delicate question hanging over the Democratic ticket: Do voters’ concerns about President Biden’s age mean she must convince them she is ready to serve?

“I am ready to serve. There’s no question about that,” Harris responded bluntly. Everyone who sees her on the job, Harris said, “walks away fully aware of my capacity to lead.”

The response during an interview with The Wall Street Journal on Tuesday came two days before a special counsel report on Biden’s handling of classified documents amplified concerns about the 81-year-old incumbent’s mental acuity. The report said Biden displayed “diminished faculties” in interviews and called him an “elderly man with a poor memory.”

The findings have intensified the scrutiny on Harris, 59, the first woman and Black vice president, whose tenure has been marked by criticism of her political skills. What had been quiet talk of whether Harris could step into the presidency is now spilling into the open.

“There was always going to be a lot of scrutiny and pressure on her in the 2024 campaign, and that moment’s here now,” said Jennifer Palmieri, who worked in the Obama and Clinton administrations and for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign. “I think that the special counsel’s report has sort of accelerated that moment.”

In recent months, Harris has taken on greater and more public responsibilities. She has become the administration’s lead messenger on abortion rights, was put in charge of the White House’s new Office of Gun Violence Prevention and is playing a higher-profile role in the administration’s handling of the war in Gaza.

Harris, who has joined Biden on calls with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and gave a forceful speech in Dubai on the conflict, has pushed the administration to articulate more empathy for Palestinians and to focus on a postconflict Gaza plan.

Shortly after the special counsel report was released, Harris’s team was asked by West Wing aides to have her appear on a Sunday news show to defend the president, according to a person familiar with the request. Harris didn’t want to wait. At an event on Friday, Harris publicly slammed the report as politically motivated and gratuitous, defending the president strongly as being “on top of and in front of it all.”

There is no serious talk of replacing Biden on this year’s presidential ticket, Democratic officials say, pointing to the filing deadlines for primary ballot access that have already closed. In the unlikely circumstance that Biden withdraws as the Democratic nominee, Harris would still have to earn the required delegates to take his place at the party’s convention in August. If it were to happen after the convention, a special meeting of the Democratic National Committee would decide the party’s presidential ticket, according to the DNC’s rules.

Allies of Harris say she was poorly utilized by the White House early in her tenure and is now positioned to show her value to the presidential ticket, especially in turning out key Democratic voters on abortion rights.

It is one of the few issues Democrats have an advantage on ahead of the 2024 election, polls show. With many voters opposed to the Biden administration’s handling of the war in the Middle East and immigration policy, concerned about the president’s mental and physical health, and still feeling dissatisfied with the economy, Democrats are counting on abortion rights to energize loyal voters and sway independents and suburban women.

Harris points to her experience as a prosecutor on sexual-assault cases dealing with women and children as evidence that she is uniquely suited to champion abortion rights. Harris talks about the issue in a way that is rare for elected officials. She describes the consequences—at times, in explicit detail—of the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision, which ended federal constitutional protections for abortions.

In public appearances, the vice president has brought up women having miscarriages in toilets and explained the fine-print challenges of state laws that have exceptions for rape and incest because, she said, she wants voters to fully understand what many women are facing. By contrast, Biden, a practicing Catholic, previously opposed federal funding for abortion and voted against giving women access to late-term abortions. He still rarely uses the word “abortion,” and recently frustrated Democrats when he said he doesn’t support “abortions on demand.”

“I do believe that the majority of people have an empathy gene,” she said during the interview aboard Air Force Two. “And the more they realize what has actually been happening since the Dobbs decision came down, the more open they are to consider the fundamental point, which is: Should the government be telling a woman what to do?”

Hours before the interview, Harris had described to a crowd of mostly women in Savannah, Ga., how as a former prosecutor she viewed the state’s six-week abortion ban, which has exceptions for rape and incest but only with a police report. “I know it’s a difficult conversation to have, but we need to face reality,” she told them, walking them through what a woman would have to deal with to obtain a policy report in such a scenario.

She then added, “Please do understand who is to blame: The former president, Donald Trump.”

Trump has bragged about nominating Supreme Court justices who voted to overturn Roe v. Wade. “For 54 years they were trying to get Roe v. Wade terminated, and I did it and I’m proud to have done it,” he said last month.

Ahead of the re-election campaign, Democrats privately expressed concerns about Harris’s place on the ticket, portraying her as a liability. Her backers maintain that Harris, the daughter of Indian and Jamaican immigrants, has been held to a different standard from past vice presidents, including Biden. Many now acknowledge Harris is on a firmer footing campaigning on abortion access, but they still aren’t convinced she should be anointed as the party’s future leader.

Republicans have seized on Harris’s central campaign role, calling her more liberal and unpredictable than Biden. “A vote for President Biden is a vote for Kamala Harris,” former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley has said.

With the release of the special counsel report, Republicans are now expected to make Harris’s readiness an even bigger line of attack. “She might be the top issue in the election,” said Scott Jennings, a GOP strategist.

Harris has framed abortion access as an issue of freedom and limited government, which could blunt some of Republicans’ arguments against her, said Kayleigh McEnany, a former press secretary to Trump and Fox News co-host who is antiabortion.

“I think she spent a lot of time working on presenting herself as a credible alternative,” McEnany said.

Both Biden and Harris are underwater in public polling. The campaign, which is counting on the president’s ability to reassemble its 2020 coalition to win re-election, has made the calculation that Harris can appeal to younger, progressive and minority voters more effectively than the president.

Getting those voters to turn out for Biden like they did in 2020 will be a challenge. Many on the left have been fuming over the administration’s handling of the war in Gaza and Biden’s endorsement of tougher border policies.

Pro-Palestine protesters have followed Harris at stops throughout her abortion-rights tour, including in Savannah, where one woman shouted, “You’re committing genocide,” before being escorted out.

“I get it—I get why people are protesting,” Harris said in the interview. “We are working around the clock to end this conflict.”

Cyrena Martin, executive director of a Milwaukee-based nonprofit that helps women affected by domestic and sexual violence, said Harris’s remarks on abortion access in Wisconsin were what she and other Black women needed to see to get excited about voting for Biden.

Martin said she didn’t think the administration did enough to address the issue in the immediate aftermath of Dobbs. “There was a lot of ‘Where’s Kamala?’” Martin said.

She also said Harris was “absolutely ready” to serve as president if needed, but her concern is whether others would see that. “It’s always been a question whether people would vote for a woman, especially a Black woman,” she said. “It’s looking like a hard win right now as it is.”

Harris recently visited a Milwaukee suburb for the first stop of her abortion-rights campaign tour. After the Dobbs decision, Wisconsin’s 1849 state law banning abortion was reactivated.

Maleah Wright, 28, of Spring Green, Wis., said she strongly favors a woman’s right to choose, but she is planning to vote for a third-party candidate because she is worried about Biden. “Mentally, I’m not sure he’s a fit president,” she said. “If [Harris] has to step in, I think that she would do a fine job of holding office, but for four years as a president, I would have to say that I don’t feel like she is ready,” she added.

Harris, who is known to be extremely private, has been sharing more of her personal story in recent months. On her abortion-rights tour, Harris said she became a prosecutor after her best friend in high school told her she was being molested by her stepfather. As soon as she learned, Harris arranged for her friend to live with her family for several months.

“She was fighting for people’s rights way back then,” said that friend, Wanda Kagan, who lives in Montreal.

As a former district attorney of San Francisco and attorney general of California, Harris was involved in several legal battles on abortion and reproductive health, including leading a multistate brief on the 2014 Supreme Court Hobby Lobby case on access to contraception.

Harris said in the interview her upbringing prepared her to not shy away from talking about abortion openly. She was raised by a mother who worked as a breast-cancer researcher and made women’s reproductive health a frequent topic of conversation. “She was talking about hormones at the dinner table all the time,” she said with a laugh.

Turning more serious, Harris added: “This stuff should not exist in the shadows. We don’t talk about it and then people suffer, because women aren’t supposed to talk about these things.”

Eric Whitman

Eric Whitman

Eric Whitman is our Senior Correspondent who has been reporting on Stock Market for last 5+ years. He handles news for UK and Europe. He is based in London