President-in-waiting? Harris seizes spotlight with Biden’s future uncertain

Vice President Kamala Harris is racing across the nation promoting the coronavirus relief package and stressing the importance of vaccination, giving many voters their first good look at the possible president-in-waiting.

The focus on Ms. Harris is growing with each passing day given that she is a heartbeat away from the presidency — and that heart belongs to a 78-year-old who might not seek a second term.

Ms. Harris’ role in the White House remains a work in progress and without a designated portfolio of duties.

For now, the 56-year-old former U.S. senator and California attorney general mostly serves as President Biden’s stand-in and understudy.

She is a regular presence at the president’s daily intelligence briefing and has made several calls to foreign leaders in Mr. Biden’s stead.

“Seems as though VP Harris’ role is still being shaped,” said Christy Setzer, a Democratic strategist. “Some aspects of her job are obvious: casting tiebreaking votes in a 50-50 Senate, leading outreach to women and communities of color on the administration’s policies.

“I suspect Harris will also take on her own meaty piece of the work, as Biden did when he led efforts for the middle class on the Recovery Act,” Ms. Setzer said.

Indeed, President Obama tasked Mr. Biden with acting as a bridge between Capitol Hill and the White House. He oversaw the stimulus program, the withdrawal of troops from Iraq and a gun control deal that ultimately died in Congress.

Signaling that he wants Ms. Harris to play a similar role in his administration, Mr. Biden has said he wants her to “participate in everything that I did” and “be the last person in the room” when he makes big decisions.

Ms. Harris has been a constant presence at Mr. Biden’s side.

She has been seen sitting alongside him during meetings with lawmakers at the Oval Office. She stood by his side last week when he signed the American Rescue Plan into law and then led him out of the room.

Her first 50-plus days in office have tested her ties with her former colleagues in Congress and the far-left wing of the Democratic Party.

Liberal activists said she blew a chance to include a $15-per-hour federal minimum wage in the coronavirus rescue plan by refusing to overturn a Senate parliamentarian ruling that it was out of order.

Mr. Biden and Ms. Harris split up this week as part of a concentrated push to highlight lesser-known parts of the relief package such as a child tax credit and extensions of unemployment benefits and the Paycheck Protection Program for small businesses.

Ms. Harris and her husband, Douglas Emhoff, on Monday visited a vaccine clinic at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and the Culinary Academy of Las Vegas.

“What I want to do is make sure that people know what they’re entitled to in the American Rescue Plan,” she said.

They followed that up Tuesday by traveling to Denver to speak with the head of a COVID-19 vaccination clinic and participate in a listening session with small-business owners at an empanada shop.

Ms. Harris said the administration is focused on ensuring that vaccinations are distributed with equity in mind.

“The president and I from the beginning of this have made it one of our highest priorities to make sure that we are taking into account racial disparities and that we supply folks on the ground with the resources you need so that we have equitable outcomes,” Ms. Harris said.

At the second stop, Ms. Harris said, “Small businesses are really part of the heartbeat of every community.”

Mr. Emhoff is settling into his role as the nation’s first second gentleman after leaving his law firm, DLA Piper.

Democrats hope the rescue package is the first accomplishment on a long Biden administration to-do list, which includes spending trillions of dollars on infrastructure, reducing greenhouse gas emissions to combat climate change, cutting the cost of college tuition, expanding health care, enacting universal background checks on gun purchases, and criminal justice reform.

David McCuan, chairman of the political science department at Sonoma State University, said Ms. Harris has plenty of time to “develop her own sizzle” by carving out a legislative corner of her own.

“The challenge is how you put meat on the bones [of her vision] and not be a potted plant and carry the water of the main man,” Mr. McCuan said. “That is where I think there is still a search for that role and what comes next.”

Mr. McCuan said Ms. Harris could end up leading on an issue such as infrastructure. “It is not sexy,” he said, but it could help deflect some of the criticism that she has been short on substance.

Mr. McCuan said pressure is on the Harris team to step into the limelight because Mr. Biden’s political future is uncertain.

“You have the race to solidify her position as a next-generation leader of the party, while the base of the party is rapidly changing,” he said.

Mr. McCuan said Ms. Harris’ best chance of making an early big splash could be a response to the push to recall California Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat and one of her biggest allies in the state.

“The recall in California will become the warm-up battle for the 2022 general election,” he said.

Brad Bannon, a Democratic strategist, said Ms. Harris appears to be focused on filling a gap on her resume by focusing on foreign affairs. He noted the vice president’s conversations with several foreign leaders.

“She apparently wants to be a strong voice on national security issues,” Mr. Bannon said.

She was reportedly “heavily engaged” in discussions last month before Mr. Biden ordered an airstrike on Iran-backed militias that the Pentagon said were responsible for attacking Americans and allied forces in Iraq.

Mr. Bannon said Ms. Harris faces a bigger challenge than most other vice presidents because it is not clear whether Mr. Biden plans to run for reelection.

She could be working within a four-year rather than eight-year window when it comes to delivering as vice president and setting the stage for a presidential run of her own.

“Look at poor Mike Pence. I don’t think he ever carved out an identity for himself under Donald Trump,” Mr. Bannon said. “He played the loyal soldier even when Trump went completely off the deep end.

“That is why so many vice presidents never become president: because they never carve out an identity for themselves.”