Ben Roback: The Vice President wants the President’s job – and he knows it

Ben Roback is Vice President of Public Affairs at Sard Verbinnen & Co.

How do you become an “excellent” Vice President? It’s something of a contradiction in terms. Can Dominic Raab reasonably aspire to be a “brilliant” Deputy Prime Minister? The sporting world is rarely full of “outstanding” assistant managers. When the role is being a solid back up to the chief, competence is critical, and aspiration is frowned upon.

In the ruthless world of Washington politics, no Vice President can or really should ever be more successful than their boss. If the pervading narrative in Washington were that the Harris vice presidency was a roaring success that left the Biden presidency trailing behind, the White House would move to reduce Harris’ profile and responsibilities.

Closer to home, it came as no coincidence that a Downing Street source reported that the Prime Minster was considering reshuffling the Chancellor to the Department of Health at around the time when Rishi Sunak’s popularity ratings vastly outscored Boris Johnson’s.

Kamala Harris’ problems are twofold in what has otherwise been a very good week for the Democrats in Washington. (Joe Biden signed into law a $1 trillion infrastructure bill at the White House in a rare bipartisan event. Thirteen Republicans voted for the legislation, and two even went to the White House on Monday to witness Biden signing the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act into law.)

First, if competence is key in the role of number two, Harris risks losing a grip on that vital trait. It would not be unfair to describe the Harris vice-presidency so far as underwhelming.

Much was expected of her, but the President has moved to limit her role and remit. She is said to have played a consistent back-room role in cajoling Democrats to support the White House’s vast infrastructure spending bill, but that proved to be a torturous process that entrenched deep dividing lines on the left.

The Vice President’s next big challenge is selling the benefits of the legislation to the American people. After yesterday’s signing ceremony on the South Lawn, the White House and Cabinet members are expected to begin a months-long road show to showcase the benefits.

We can expect senior Democrats in front of derelict buildings and decaying bridges across the length and breadth of the country. That presents an opportunity for Harris to insert herself into frontline domestic politics in a way that she has arguably failed to do thus far.

On the one hand, that means Air Force Two remaining on standby at all times, and a gruelling schedule away from the heartbeat of American politics in Washington. On the other hand, it will see Harris touring the towns, cities, counties and states that will shape the 2024 presidential election.

It is on that basis that we uncover Harris’ second problem. The Vice President wants the President’s job, and he knows it. She was brought onto the presidential ticket to provide balance in order to win the election and advance the kind of diversity of background, gender and thought that the Democratic Party base aspires to see. But there appears to have been little consideration about the role she would play once the election was won.

Harris appears increasingly exasperated, amidst a perception that she is being sidelined from front-foot political and policy issues, while being handed poisoned chalices that can never be resolved – such as the migrant crisis on the southern border where the humanitarian situation is getting even more dire.

Biden is expected to delay any public decision on his decision to run for re-election in 2024 for as long as possible. He is already American’s oldest president at 78 on inauguration day; the median age at inauguration is 55. It is crass to suggest Harris is a ‘heartbeat away’ from the presidency but, if he does run again, Biden will be asking voters to re-elect him to serve until he is 86.

An incumbent Vice President should be the natural successor when their party’s presidential nomination is open. As such, Harris remains the most logical successor to Biden. It is clear that shehas aspirations for the one office higher than her own, but a poor track record as Vice President on key issues like the southern border risks pouring cold water on those presidential ambitions. Nonetheless, for a playbook in how to turn the vice presidency, Harris needn’t look far: she can just ask Biden.

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