Jun 13, 2021 - Politics & Policy

Harris' trip problems rekindle 2020 campaign doubts

Vice President Kamala Harris is seen speaking during an interview with NBC's Lester Holt.

Vice President Kamala Harris with anchor Lester Holt. Via NBC News

Vice President Kamala Harris' stumbles during her first foreign trip have rekindled the debate from her presidential campaign about whether she — and not her staff — is to blame.

Why it matters: While Harris' only overture toward running for president in 2024 has been a trip to New Hampshire in April, the vice president is in a prime position to cast herself as the best choice for Democrats should President Biden not seek a second term.

  • Such international trips and her leadership of the migration and jobs portfolios given to her by Biden will collectively let her showcase herself for the No. 1 slot in a future election.
  • The White House didn't offer comment but aides noted that Harris has done numerous interviews without problems and the exchange during her trip last week came after repeated questions on the same topic.

Between the lines: One factor that led Harris to become the first major Democrat to exit the 2020 race — despite a massive announcement rally — was that she surrounded herself with a staff who didn't always serve her well.

  • Now, as vice president, she has the latitude and stature to tap some of the country’s best talent to work on her team.
  • Her trip to Guatemala and Mexico still garnered a flurry of negative headlines.
  • Most prominently, Harris stumbled on an easily anticipated question about the border during an interview with NBC News anchor Lester Holt, growing defensive. Even follow-ups with other reporters didn't go much better.

The intrigue: The vice president can be notoriously difficult to prep, multiple former aides told Axios.

  • Harris is “intensely intellectually curious,” as one former aide put it, which often sends briefings into a “rabbit hole” on topics that may not necessarily be relevant to the appearance or interview at hand.
  • She also only listens to a select group of people, most prominently her sister, Maya.
  • “If somebody doesn’t knock it out of the park their first time, then they will always have a tough time. And so that often leads to the people who she relies on the most being in charge of leading prep on everything, which is impossible to do well, regardless of who you are,” said one former aide.
  • Each of the former aides spoke to Axios on the condition of anonymity to comment freely.

But, but, but: Harris was under an enormous amount of pressure on this trip. Not only was it her first visit abroad, but she is also the first female vice president and the first woman of color to be a heartbeat away from the presidency.

  • The former first-term senator and California attorney general also is operating in the shadow of her boss, who came to the presidency with decades of experience on the global stage.
  • And because she is seen as Biden’s natural successor, Republicans have eagerly capitalized on any misstep for their own political gain.

Between the lines: Harris also is in a tough spot managing two issues — immigration and voting rights, the latter of which she’s reported to have chosen herself — that have little upside and huge downside.

  • Such difficult assignments have historically fallen to a vice president, to keep the president in a positive light.
  • And while her office insists that Harris has been tasked with diplomacy toward the Northern Triangle countries in Central America and not the border crisis specifically, they're having difficulty getting traction for that message within the public.
  • “If you give someone a sh***ty assignment because the president doesn’t want to do it himself, you can’t be mad when the treacherous situation looks treacherous,” said one former aide after word of internal White House criticism toward Harris.

🎧 Listen: Dan Primack of the Axios Re:Cap podcast interviews senior White House official Juan Gonzalez about the trip.

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