WASHINGTON — It ought to have been a straightforward query.
In Guatemala this week, Vice President Kamala Harris sat with NBC anchor Lester Holt, who grilled her about why she had not visited the U.S.-Mexico border as a part of her work analyzing the foundation causes of migration. After the third border-related query, the vice chairman appeared to have had sufficient.
“I’ve by no means been to Europe,” Ms. Harris mentioned. “I don’t perceive the purpose you’re making.”
That response perplexed a number of administration officers who knew she had ready at size for the query. By veering away from the script, Ms. Harris gave Republicans grist for a information cycle that lasted longer than her two-day journey. In one other look, her blunt message to migrants on behalf of President Biden — “do not come” — was criticized by lawmakers within the progressive wing of her personal get together.
The journey crystallized one thing essential about Ms. Harris’s vice presidency: Whether or not she stays on message — as she did by telling migrants to not come — or goes off script, she won’t be able to fulfill everybody. With two of essentially the most polarizing points, migration and voting rights, now in her portfolio, the risk of missteps is so excessive and the problems so intractable that even her allies say she is in a no-win scenario.
A politician who has at all times struggled to outline herself, Ms. Harris is now making an attempt to take action in actual time, with two points that would complicate her personal political future and doubtlessly upend a few of Mr. Biden’s central ambitions for his legacy.
“They’ve simply been flat-footed on immigration they usually’ve opened up a major political vulnerability for themselves,” Richard N. Haass, the president of the Council on Overseas Relations, whom Ms. Harris turned to for overseas coverage recommendation in the course of the normal election, mentioned of the Biden administration’s method to responding to a surge of migrants on the border. “It was her unhealthy luck that that is her task. She will’t succeed given these circumstances.”
(As for her “Europe” remark, Mr. Haass had one phrase: “Inartful.”)
Her aides say the criticism mustn’t overshadow a visit that, from a coverage perspective, delivered on its diplomatic and financial objectives. Officers on the Nationwide Safety Council are nonetheless flooding her with requests for extra overseas journey, viewing her presence within the Northern Triangle nations of Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala as a plus for the administration.
Ms. Harris is conscious of the stakes concerned.
In response to interviews with 20 White Home aides, allies and former advisers, Ms. Harris is making an attempt to form her vice presidency by tackling unwieldy coverage points, creating relationships she was not recognized for nurturing as a senator and adhering to the president’s objectives, even when a few of what she is saying now contradicts what she mentioned she used to imagine.
“That’s the function she signed up for,” Gil Duran, a Democratic strategist and former aide to Ms. Harris, mentioned in an interview. As a senator, Ms. Harris signed a letter criticizing the Trump administration’s use of a public well being rule to show away asylum-seekers on the border, a place at odds with the Biden administration’s present coverage.
However Mr. Duran identified that the reception by Democrats to the Biden administration’s warnings to migrants “would possibly look very completely different in a normal election sooner or later, and that’s the viewers she’s taking part in to now.”
A charismatic senator who entered the 2020 presidential election eliciting comparisons to Barack Obama, Ms. Harris didn’t make it to the Iowa caucuses partly as a result of she never knew which issues to emphasize. As vice chairman, Ms. Harris started her tenure as a generalist, largely to be taught the rhythms of a president she was nonetheless attending to know.
At first, she had two choices, drawn up by Ron Klain, Mr. Biden’s chief of employees. She may develop a slim portfolio, diving deep into a number of specialised points. Or she may spend most of her time with Mr. Biden. Ms. Harris, who since becoming a member of Mr. Biden on the ticket has been desirous to show herself a workforce participant, eagerly selected the primary choice.
When Mr. Biden decided to assign her the Northern Triangle — a process he had accepted throughout his eight years as vice chairman to Mr. Obama — it was seen as “taking one for the workforce,” mentioned one among her former aides, who spoke on the situation of anonymity to protect relationships.
Over a month in the past, Ms. Harris started having conversations with each the president and Mr. Klain about one other space the place she felt she might be efficient. She had labored on voting rights laws within the Senate, and had co-sponsored two of the expansive payments that have been foundering within the chamber. And, as the primary Black girl and girl of Asian descent to carry her workplace, the subject was personally necessary to her.
She advised Mr. Biden she could be blissful to take the lead on the problem. Mr. Biden agreed.
“I’m glad she is just not ready for somebody to placed on her plate what ought to be on her menu,” mentioned Donna Brazile, who managed Vice President Al Gore’s 2000 presidential marketing campaign. “I can’t consider a greater challenge for her.”
The challenges of Ms. Harris’s new function introduced themselves virtually instantly: Senator Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, who’s perceived as a pivotal reasonable holdout who may assist his fellow Democrats move an expansive voting rights regulation, publicly said last week that he could not support it.
He additionally mentioned he was towards eliminating the legislative filibuster, a promise that imperils a lot of the Biden administration’s agenda, together with voting rights.
Mr. Manchin’s determination laid naked for Ms. Harris one other political actuality: She didn’t have sturdy sufficient relationships with key lawmakers to barter on that challenge, or on a number of others going through the administration.
Ms. Harris, who spent a bit of her 4 years within the Senate working for president, was not recognized for constructing particularly shut relationships together with her colleagues, and Mr. Manchin was no exception. She has not acted as one of many administration’s lead negotiators on the American Rescue Plan that Mr. Biden signed into regulation in March or the American Jobs Plan, his infrastructure proposal.
Just lately, she has tried to do extra outreach to her former colleagues. Subsequent week, she is going to host a bipartisan dinner for all 24 girls senators at her official residence on the grounds of the Naval Observatory, her first social occasion since shifting in.
With the passage of any laws on voting rights wanting much less doubtless, many Democrats anticipate Ms. Harris will play a task in marshaling civil rights teams, personal firms and group leaders to beat again tons of of restrictive legal guidelines launched in Republican-led state homes throughout the nation. Subsequent week, she is going to host a bunch of Texas Democrats who final month blocked the passage of laws that might have made it tougher for Texans to vote.
“You’re going to want a high-profile surrogate saying, ‘They did this on goal and you should prove to vote.’ Which may be what she finally ends up doing,” mentioned Jennifer Palmieri, who served as White Home communications director beneath President Barack Obama.
Lots of her predecessors struggled with the constraints of the vice presidency, however Ms. Harris, the primary girl of colour in her place, encounters a special form of scrutiny. She has turn out to be a goal of assaults from conservative media shops, which up to now haven’t discovered a method to assault Mr. Biden head-on. And each motion of hers is being seen by the lens of her personal political future. In selecting her as his working mate, Mr. Biden basically anointed her the main Democratic candidate to succeed him.
For now, although, Ms. Harris continues to be studying to play a task that her boss is aware of higher than virtually anybody.
Conscious that he made a giant funding in Ms. Harris by selecting her as his vice chairman, Mr. Biden has made certain she receives the identical briefing supplies he does, and folds her into most of his conferences, as a result of, as one White Home official put it, he desires her to soak up his mind-set. They each obtain their every day briefings and media clips on iPads.
Ms. Harris has a weekly one-on-one assembly with Mr. Klain as nicely, a degree of inclusion within the day-to-day work of the White Home that Biden aides level out was by no means provided to Mr. Biden when he served as vice chairman.
“The vice chairman’s job is such a tough one as a result of the recommendation you give is unseen and the duties you carry out are completely on the discretion of the president and his employees,” mentioned David Axelrod, a former prime adviser to Mr. Obama. “For politicians accustomed to main roles, it may be very irritating.”
As vice chairman, Mr. Biden was recognized for stepping exterior of the boundaries of his workplace, generally getting forward of Mr. Obama on hot-button points, together with homosexual marriage. Ms. Harris has made no such missteps, however does be aware of the criticism she receives.
Ms. Harris is fast to chortle in interviews, an inclination that has earned her unflattering headlines. In March, a misleadingly edited video that appeared to indicate her laughing concerning the plight of youngsters on the Southern border gained consideration on-line, irritating Ms. Harris and other people near her. It occurred once more this week, when she was requested concerning the border by Mr. Holt, and a wave of criticism adopted.
“That message was despatched loud and clear that she actually doesn’t care,” mentioned Brandon Judd, the president of the Nationwide Border Patrol Council, referring to the NBC interview.
As a result of she pays shut consideration to her personal media protection, Ms. Harris has gone to her allies with some model of the identical query, in keeping with a number of individuals briefed on inner exchanges: Ought to I by no means chortle?
“Girls, particularly girls in govt positions, get judged much more harshly, and that could be a actuality,” mentioned Anita Dunn, a senior adviser to President Biden. “In fact she’s conscious of that.”
The president’s advisers say he’s happy with how Ms. Harris’s journey went. Ms. Dunn identified that Mr. Biden referred to as the vice chairman on Friday, whereas he was overseas on his personal first overseas journey, to congratulate her on her work.
“She’s by no means going to get a straightforward challenge,” Ms. Dunn mentioned, “and neither is the president of the USA.”
Zolan Kanno-Youngs contributed reporting.