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Immigration, voting rights, police reform: Kamala Harris gets the hard jobs

The "Biden-Harris administration" still fills the vice president's portfolio with the thorniest tasks.

Vice President Kamala Harris is in a better spot than most of her predecessors at this point in her term. President Joe Biden, who himself is the first vice president to ascend to the role since 1988, has made sure to save some of the limelight for his No. 2: “The Biden-Harris administration” is the preferred nomenclature, thank you very much, a phrase that is plastered on the White House website and every statement issued where their names share top billing.

It’s all part and parcel with Biden’s desire during the campaign to have a "full partner in government" in Harris once in office. What’s more equal than both co-stars getting their name on the top of the poster? Once you look into how that translates in terms of her actual function within the administration, though, Harris’ partnership with Biden starts to seem a bit less groundbreaking.

What’s more equal than both co-stars getting their name on the top of the poster?

Harris, like most modern vice presidents, is no slouch at getting ad hoc responsibilities added to her few constitutional duties — she’s currently in the middle of a tour of Central America to help deter migration to the southern border. But as this trip is showing, her higher-than-normal profile doesn’t mean she gets the easy gigs. In fact, she’s just as likely as any VP to get the jobs that almost nobody would volunteer to take on.

Case in point: Harris is getting less than rave reviews of her current international jaunt. Her assigned task is to help address the issues in the “Northern Triangle” of Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras that drive residents north — poverty, corruption and violence, all of which have ties to U.S. policies past and present.

Standing next to Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei on Monday, Harris had a direct message: “I want to be clear to folks in this region who are thinking about making that dangerous trek to the United States-Mexico border: Do not come, do not come.”

It’s the same message Biden gave in March to ABC News and that Roberta Jacobson, the White House coordinator for the southern border, gave in Spanish in the White House briefing room. But in repeating the administration’s policy, Harris became a lightning rod for criticism from her fellow Democrats.

In theory, the more jobs on your desk as vice president, the better to show you have the leadership skills needed to take on the presidency yourself someday. Given the list of what’s on her plate so far, courtesy of The New York Times, it’s a maxim Harris buys into:

Her Northern Triangle work comes in addition to a host of other engagements, including but not limited to: selling the “American Rescue Plan,” advocating Mr. Biden’s infrastructure package, representing women in the work force, highlighting the Black maternal mortality rate, assisting small businesses, assessing water policy, promoting racial equity, combating vaccine hesitancy, and fighting for a policing overhaul.

Last week, Harris got yet another job added on top of those: saving American democracy. Biden tasked her with leading the efforts to counter Republicans' push to restrict voting rights, a job that while absolutely crucial is also one nobody knows how to pull off.

So it goes with the vice presidency. In practice, the mountain of side hustles has meant shouldering tasks that both require high-level commitment — to show they’re a priority to the White House — but are also thorny or complex enough that they’re unlikely to result in slam-dunk victories. Think of how former Vice President Mike Pence was put in charge of the Covid-19 response or of Al Gore’s work to shrink the federal government.

That leads to situations where, as The Atlantic’s Edward-Isaac Dovere wrote about Harris’ border assignment as it relates to her political limbo, the vice president is the one left holding the bag on unpopular actions — or lack thereof:

A few weeks ago, I went to a White House press briefing to try to get a sense of what the vice president’s role is supposed to be. Harris had held a virtual meeting with the Northern Triangle leaders that morning, so I asked Press Secretary Jen Psaki how that call fit into the administration’s overall effort. Psaki started by saying that the conversation was part of a series of meetings the vice president had been having with other leaders and staff, not all of which had been public. Had the president given Harris any directives? I asked. “Well, the president and the vice president see each other quite regularly. She’s in many of the meetings, when she’s in town—almost all of them—that the president is in as well. So I would say it’s more of a discussion with others who are leading and running point on these issues.”

No one, including the vice president’s staff, has been able to tell me what any of this means. Migration and immigration are multinational, multilayer problems. Saying that Kamala Harris is going to fix them is like declaring that she’ll be the one to figure out how to land a crewed mission on Jupiter.

Yes, Harris’ name is on all the documents that come out of the White House, a courtesy not afforded to Biden during his time living at the Naval Observatory. (Google Trends shows that "Obama administration" was a much, much more popular search term than "Obama-Biden administration.") Yes, the White House stands by her comments in Guatemala. But the equal footing that’s suggested just isn’t possible in this — or any — administration.

It’s the government bureaucracy version of Will Smith showing off Jada Pinkett Smith on the red carpet. “Look at this marvel!” it screams, all while underneath the surface things are a bit more tangled than they seem.