By Shivaji Sengupta
How is the partly Indian-American vice president, Kamala Harris doing after six months in office? The answer may have to do with the responder’s political leanings. Democrats, like myself, may find her fairly successful. Republicans, not so much. Opinions so far are divided. The poll average has 45% in favor, 45% out of favor; 10% undecided. After one hundred and sixty-five days into the vice presidency, Harris has done no better (but no worse) than other starting vice presidents. Only All Gore’s in recent history was better. And, again, do not forget, we are talking about a woman here.
Ms. Harris has that metal in her, ethos that makes her want to break barriers. Otherwise, how can the daughter of a tiny South Indian woman who thought no further than becoming a scientist, who, in the same year, earned her doctorate and gave birth to Kamala, how could that daughter break one barrier after another? Perhaps it has something to do with the admonishing advice Shyamala Gopalan gave to her five year old, Kamala: always be the first; never last!
But what about her father? Why do we know so little about him? He was notably not present at the inauguration. When asked why, he said he was not a celebrity seeker. Kamala was more straight forward. “My father is a good guy, but we are not close.” The original relationship between father and daughter “came to an abrupt halt in 1972,” when Kamala was eight, she wrote in 2019 about her Jamaican heritage.
Kamala subsequently worked as a deputy district attorney in Oakland, earning a reputation for toughness as she prosecuted cases of gang violence, drug trafficking, and sexual abuse. Harris rose through the ranks, becoming district attorney in 2004. In 2010 she was narrowly elected attorney general of California—winning by a margin of less than 1 percent—thus becoming the first female and the first African American to hold the post. After taking office the following year, she demonstrated toughness, for example pressure from the Obama administration for her to settle a nationwide lawsuit against mortgage lenders for unfair practices. Instead, she pressed California’s case and in 2012 won a judgment five times higher than that originally offered. She refused to defend Proposition 8 which banned same sex marriage, and eventually the proposition was defeated. She is credited with educating habitual criminals from repeatedly committing crimes. Her book Smart on Crime is on the methods government and agencies can take to prevent habitual criminals from becoming repeated offenders.
So much for Kamala Harris before she was Vice President. As VP, she seems to be largely in the apprentice mode, learning from a man who himself served eight years as President Obama’s deputy. We see her standing silently by President Biden in all of the latter’s executive appearances, whether signing laws, executive orders, or appear jointly with other heads of states. Consequently, Ms. Harris has caught the flack that belongs properly to the president. Harris also has the misfortune of having followed the Trump presidency. The latter has been judged to be among the worst five of 45 American presidents. Since losing to Biden, Trump has succeeded in convincing 40 million Republicans, without proof, that the election was stolen from him, that a Biden-Harris administration is not legitimate. Not surprisingly, 90% Republicans view Kamala Harris unfavorably.
On the one hand, the Biden-Harris administration is catching the cross fire between conservatives on one side, and the progressives on the other. On the other hand, Biden himself seems to be frozen between negotiating with the Republicans, and trying to get laws passed with massive social benefits. It’s my hunch that Kamala, as president, wouldn’t have spent as much time coddling the Republicans. She would have taken the bull by the horns and ridden rough shod, get the laws passed using reconciliation. You can’t please both sides. As a result, Kamala is walking a tight rope, defending Biden’s methods with which she may not agree all the time, and, at the same time, suffering severe criticism from opponents.
What is unfortunate is the way Republican women have come after her, railing at her mannerisms, even at her wonderful, open-soul laughter. Her laughter, some of them are saying, is a part of defense mechanism. Katie Pavlich finds it irritating. Stop laughing when asked serious questions, she advises. Another female journalist thinks it is a nervous defense mechanism. It makes her look incompetent, they say. Some women have said Kamala Harris laughs not with her interviewers, but at them, mostly to forestall, or even mock.
I don’t think so. Ms. Harris’ open- hearted laughter is, in fact, very engaging and inclusive. It actually stands in sharp contrast to when she is deadly serious. In fact, if anything Kamala should smile more, especially when the opposition asks tough questions or is outright rude like Pavlich. On television, I have seen her clam up in tense situations, say things awkwardly that can be interpreted as rude. For example, when asked why she hadn’t visited Central America to solve the problems of unauthorized immigration, she replied laconically, “I haven’t visited Europe either.” She could have said that foreign visits are not yet in the schedule, but would be, especially to Mexico. I chalk it up to her relative inexperience in national politics, her being a woman Vice President in an often hostile male world, and an even a more hostile group of women opposed to her. It is precisely at moments like these, when she senses meanness in the questions that she could smile in a knowing way, or even laugh, as if to say, ” I see your game…!”
Kamala Harris, we must remember, is the highest ranking person of color, and a woman to boot, in the federal government. As such she will have critics (remember the case of Obama?). She is also known to be a no-nonsense task enforcer, demands action when she gives directives. In a heavily male dominated White House environment, the vice president’s office is bound to feel criticism and pressure. Symone Sanders, one of her top officials, is notoriously assertive (read her autobiography, No, You Shut Up!). So I am not surprised that some employees have complained of aggressive behavior. Since the complaints, however, the Vice President has tried to diffuse the tension by throwing an office party.
Another notable example of unfairness to her, is a Facebook meme with a photograph of a dinner at the vice president’s official residence. The dinner shows Ms. Harris offering a toast with the guests, all of whom are White. The only two people of color in the room ( besides the VP) are the two waiters. The caption to the photo says, Happy Juneteenth!. USA Today, polled to be the most objective of American newspapers, did a fact-check and found that the party had nothing to do with Juneteenth, the new national holiday celebrating the emancipation of slaves.
But that does not mean Kamala Harris is beyond criticism. Far from it. Her recent visit to Guatemala and Mexico was, at best, a very limited success in terms of convincing those countries of US policy. Undocumented Guatamalans cross the American border repeatedly and in droves, forcing the Biden administration to follow Trump’s suspension of Immigration Law 42 which entitles undocumented immigrants fleeing from their country to be protected until a decision on them is made. Because of Covid, implementation of “42” is regarded as a health hazard. Biden has kept the suspension in place partly because of it, but also because of the runaway chaos in immigration since he has taken over.
Kamala Harris, in her characteristic straight forward manner, bordering toward blunt, told Guatamalans, “Don’t Come!.” She elaborated in the same speech that the U.S. will work with groups in Guatamala to end corruption, the primary reasons for Guatamalans not getting jobs. The president of Guatamala, who was standing right next to Harris, had already denounced the US approach, and was furious at the American Vice President for openly calling his country corrupt. Progressive Americans and civil rights advocates at home, were embarrassed by the “Don’t Come.” And, of course, Republican politicians and press made hay of the alleged Harris gaffe. She wound up pleasing no one.
What Kamala Harris’s first foreign visit taught us, and hopefully her, is that diplomacy is different from domestic advocacy. Countries have different egos from interest groups at home. The weaker ones have a delicate sense of prestige. One has to maintain a fine line between protocol, pleasantries, and presenting unpleasant truths. She claims that her Central American visit will eventually bear fruits. But for now, she has lots to learn. Politics, as Eva Peron used to say, is the art of the possible.
A lawyer by training, extremely competent at cross examining witnesses, Ms. Harris must now learn to be more subtle and a people person. The lawyerly slogan, For the People, sounds rhetorically impressive, but may not reach the masses. To show her for-the-people credentials, she needs to talk about her Indian background and heritage more.
There is no doubt that, as a quintessential Democrat, Kamala Harris has the values appealing to the people, but she must manifest them directly by holding Town Hall meetings like she used to do during the presidential campaign. Continue to get the message across. She must laugh heartily and often. It is one of her greatest assets.
Most critically, she has the daunting challenge to refute the stereotypes of a woman without falling into the male-trap of being called ruthless.
(Juneteenth is a term coined by the freed slaves because although Abraham Lincoln’s proclamation of emancipation was made on January 1, 1863, in, the news reached the deep South very slowly, and was enforced by the Union army in the southern states. Texas was the last state to adopt the law, on June 19, 1865. The news of the emancipation itself reached the deep South sometime between June 13th and 19th: hence the ‘teenth.’)
By Shivaji Sengupta