For the first time in U.S. history, we finally have a woman of color as vice president. Being a triple-first (first Black, first South Asian, and first woman), Vice President Kamala Harris will have a lot of expectations on her shoulders. The new vice president has broken barriers in the past as the first woman of color elected to the office of district attorney in San Francisco and attorney general of California, so it may not be a new thing for her, but I’m sure it doesn’t lessen the pressure. Hours after the inauguration, while Biden signed about 17 executive orders — some of which reversed former President Trump’s policies — Vice President Harris swore in three senators who were also breaking barriers of their own. Despite the vice president only having two duties outlined in the U.S. Constitution, it has become common in the modern era for them to take on significant responsibilities during their president’s term. In this Biden presidency, I think we can especially expect to see more of her in the public eye as she helps push President Biden’s agenda and break many ties in the Senate, but I wouldn’t count on her if it comes to hot button, controversial issues.
In the past, the office of the vice presidency was often seen as a joke — more of an understudy position where you wait to see if the main lead will break a leg or die, as morbid as that sounds. In the constitution, the vice president had two duties: break any ties in the Senate as President of the Senate and succeed the president should they die or become disabled. President Adams, who was vice president to President Washington, once said of his job, “my Country has . . . contrived for me, the most insignificant Office. . . . I can do neither good nor Evil.” Over the course of American history, vice presidents have had similar sentiments about such a position. In fact, I have rarely learned about any accomplishments vice presidents have achieved in their position, unless they became president themselves — whether through election, or the former president’s death or resignation. Usually, the duties of the vice president that are not listed in the constitution are up to the president themselves. It was not until President Jimmy Carter that vice presidents began to take up a more active role in the White House, as he included Vice President Mondale in nearly everything.
While President Biden was originally hesitant on becoming vice president to President Obama, he eventually agreed, building a partnership that might possibly influence his partnership with his own vice president. According to CNN, President Biden stated, “When I agreed to serve as President Obama’s running mate, he asked me a number of questions most important, he said to me, he asked me what I wanted most. . . . I told him I wanted to be the last person in the room before he made important decisions. That’s what I asked Kamala. I asked Kamala to be the last voice in the room.” It is clear that President Biden intends to work as a team with Vice President Harris throughout his presidency, especially when fulfilling his commitment to unite the USA. Since she does not seem to have much experience in the field of foreign policy as President Biden, it is likely that she will mostly tackle domestic issues facing the American people.
One of these issues may even be criminal justice reform. Although she still acted in ways that contributed to racial inequity within the justice system, Harris was also championed by many as the most progressive prosecutor in California. One of her most famous accomplishments as attorney general of California is Open Justice, an online platform where the criminal justice data is available to the public. Since it also collects information on the number of deaths and injuries made to those in police custody, the online platform helped to hold police accountable. Vice President Harris also instituted implicit bias training for police officers which still remains part of the state’s formal training. As district attorney of San Francisco, she created Back on Track, which helped nonviolent offenders find jobs, earn high school degrees, and help them rebuild their lives within their communities.When she became a U.S. Senator, she helped introduce a bill to begin reforming the cash-bail system and introduced another bill making lynching a hate crime. When it comes to advancing racial equity and rooting out white supremacy, especially in the criminal justice field, President Biden would benefit from having Vice President Harris take the lead, considering her record.
However, it is also that same record that has me hesitant on trusting her with any controversial issues, such as Supreme Court packing and defunding the police, that will no doubt show up during Biden’s presidency.
While Vice President Harris has a rather large following across the country, some California natives remember her time as San Francisco DA and California attorney general with disappointment and anger. My parents don’t really care a lot for politics, but when they heard she was running for president in the 2020 election, it was a big ‘no’ for them. They, like others, don’t remember her record as DA and attorney general all that fondly. Early in her career as San Francisco DA, she was met with a case in which a police officer was shot with about a dozen rounds, leaving behind a wife and a baby girl, and chose not to use the death penalty in this case. Seeing as she ran her campaign to be DA on not supporting the death penalty, it was understandable. She was only holding true to her beliefs and promises. However, she still faced political ramifications for her decision. It also didn’t help that she did not speak to the family ahead of time before making that announcement in a press conference.
The problem only grew when, as attorney general, she appealed a decision made by a California federal court striking down the death penalty as unconstitutional, citing flawed reasoning. Furthermore, she declined to support two ballot measures that would end the death penalty in California. These actions made many confused and outraged as Harris did not support the death penalty. However, it would seem she learned her lesson in San Francisco about not taking any strong stance, especially if she’s eyeing a bigger prize. In 2012, when the California Justice Department recommended to her to file a civil enforcement action against OneWest Bank for misconduct, she declined to prosecute the bank or its current CEO at that time, Steve Mnuchin, who later became Secretary of Treasury under Trump. While she integrated her ‘first-of-its-kind’ police bias training as part of the formal police training, she also refused to investigate the police shootings of two Black men, Ezell Ford and Mario Woods.
From San Francisco DA to California attorney general to U.S. Senator, it would seem Vice President Harris planned from the start to rise through the ranks to get closer and closer to the White House. This is especially true when she became bolder with her policies during her presidential campaign. I can see why she did this, though I may not agree with her controversial actions. As a woman of color, would she really have gotten as far as she did if she was bold in her progressive policies from the start? Women, especially women of color, have to be careful in what they say, what they wear, what they support, etc. if they want a career in politics or in any other field. Harris strategically played the long game, walking a fine line as a prosecutor and getting bolder as she finally reached the White House. Now, as Vice President of the U.S., she may not have to play as safe as she did as a prosecutor in California. She will take the country by storm and will not be put to the side, as have been done to vice presidents in the past. It is not likely, though, that President Biden will run again next election, making it very likely Vice President Harris will run in the next election.
I believe that Vice President Harris is truly for the people, but there is no denying that the presidency will be on her mind as she shows her ability to lead through vice presidency. I expect we will see her take on many duties and responsibilities throughout the next four years and, hopefully, make more of a difference than past vice presidents. However, her political history makes it hard to believe that she will make a big difference in issues that may seem controversial, especially if she plans to campaign in the next presidential election. Let’s just hope she surprises us all and shows us that people can change for the better.
Featured Image: Sage Amdahl / Quaker Campus