In a recently published interview clip, Comedy Central host Charlamagne tha God asked Vice President Kamala Harris who the “real” president was — and her forceful response underscored a deep anxiety Democrats have heading into 2022.
"I want to know who the real president of this country is: Is it Joe Biden or Joe Manchin?” Charlamagne asked Harris on Comedy Central's "Tha God's Honest Truth," in a clip from an interview scheduled to air in full on Friday.
The television host’s question was framed as a provocation — and it was received as such.
Initially, despite the fact that Harris appeared to begin responding, an aide intervened claiming that Harris couldn't hear the question and attempted to end the interview. The interjection seemed to imply the aide might be concerned about the position the question would put Harris in. But eventually Harris went on to say she could hear Charlamagne, and she responded to his question with agitation and even some fluster.
"Come on, Charlamagne, come on. It's Joe Biden. No, no, no no, no,” Harris said. “No. No. No. No. It’s Joe Biden, and don’t start talking like a Republican about asking whether or not he’s president.”
“And it’s Joe B-, Joe B-, Joe Biden, and I’m vice president, and my name is Kamala Harris,” she continued. “And the reality is because we are in office, we do … the things like the child tax credit which is going to reduce Black child poverty by 50 percent.”
Harris then returned to composure as she cataloged the administration’s policy priorities that it has passed into law or that it’s looking to enact, including criminal justice reform, cleaning up drinking water, investing in public transit and lowering prescription drug costs.
Part of Harris’ moment of frustration was a concern that Charlamagne was giving credence to a Trumpian talking point by questioning Biden's legitimacy as president.
But of course Charlamagne’s inquiry wasn’t about the literal matter of who inhabits the White House, but rather which figure wields the power of a president in light of Manchin's de facto veto power over legislation in the Senate, most recently over the Build Back Better Act. Harris and many top Democrats are alarmed about these kinds of narratives: As the administration faces strong political headwinds, they’re concerned the public will not understand what they’ve accomplished and what they should get credit for as the midterm elections approach.
It’s not an unreasonable concern. While the bills in Biden’s legislative agenda so far have been strikingly popular with the public during the run-up to their being passed or considered by lawmakers, surveys indicate they haven’t made the kind of impact on public opinion that might’ve been expected.
An NPR/Marist poll released in December had some sobering numbers. While 4 in 5 of those who received direct one-off Covid relief checks earlier this year said they helped at least a little, only a quarter of people said it helped a lot. The survey also found that the percentage of households reporting they received the child tax credit is significantly lower than the percentage of households eligible for the tax credit, raising the question of whether some of them didn't know they were receiving enhanced support as the product of a Biden policy. Moreover, two-thirds said the tax credit only helped them a little.
The survey also found that Biden isn’t receiving credit for bills he’s pushed for. Per NPR’s analysis of the poll:
When it came to those direct payments, respondents gave Democrats in Congress a plurality of the credit for getting them to people (40%), while 17%, credited Republicans — even though zero congressional Republicans voted for the March relief bill.
The same percentage — just 17% — felt Biden was most responsible for sending the cash.
"It doesn't look like he's leading the charge even though it's his bill," said Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist Institute for Public Opinion.
"It's an issue of the messaging out of the White House," Miringoff said.
Those numbers aren't all bad for the Democrats; it’s at least good that congressional Democrats are receiving significant credit for policies they passed. But the fact that the Biden administration is getting as much credit as Republicans who tried to block a bill he lobbied for isn’t promising, especially given how Republicans will make the midterm elections a referendum on Biden’s leadership.
That NPR/Marist poll isn’t an outlier. Plenty of of other surveys have found that voters who have personally benefited from Biden’s policies don’t think they have, and don’t readily give him credit for his own policy wins. The question of why that’s the case is complicated and has multiple explanations, including, among other things, polarization (partisans of either party are increasingly cynical about the other party's ability to do anything), and the reality that Biden’s policies, while sometimes impressively ambitious like the poverty-busting expanded child tax credit, have not been commensurate with the scope of our crises, from Covid-related instability to skyrocketing housing costs to a structurally flawed health care system.
This is all to say the Biden administration fears the idea that Charlamagne’s concern could be widespread. Biden's most ambitious legislative vision — the Build Back Better Act — looks looks like it could be dead or gutted to the point that it's unrecognizable. If Biden is perceived as politically impotent and even the things he's gotten done aren't registering with the public, the midterms will be a bloodbath. Harris knows this, and it showed — perhaps even more than she intended.