What difference will Kamala Harris actually make when she takes office? From justice reform to immigration, 25 experts lay out the concrete impact a pioneering vice president could have.
Once the presidential election was called for Joe Biden on Saturday, social media—and streets—erupted with enthusiasm from people who were even more thrilled about his running mate. These are Americans who now see new doors open for their daughters, their immigrant families, themselves.
The symbolic importance of Harris’ ascent in the centuries-long story of America is undeniable. But just as important is what she could mean in concrete terms for the country that just elected her. The vice presidency carries powers both formal and implicit, and a President Biden is expected to delegate a significant portfolio to the former prosecutor and senator who sits beside him, giving her a chance to shape policy as well as that sense of political possibility. Politico Magazine invited a group of political observers, analysts, thinkers and cultural figures to project just why—and how—Harris is likely to change things for America in the job.
Some of our experts highlighted her deep record on criminal justice reform, paired with her knowledge of how it affects Black communities; others pointed out that she arrives with a personal grasp of immigration dynamics that gives her a unique angle on one of the country’s most contentious issues. And in politics, symbolism can be substance: The very fact of a woman of color occupying that office transforms the perception of donors, political kingmakers and the young women who will, someday, be on the ticket themselves. Their responses are below.
‘She will be a perpetual reminder not to neglect the forgotten base’
Tera W. Hunter is a professor of history and African-American studies at Princeton University.
When Vice President-elect Kamala Harris walks into Cabinet meetings and other important rooms, what will she bring with her as the second most powerful public voice in the nation?
There is a long legacy of Black women being unwavering advocates for expanding democratic rights for all Americans, going back centuries—long before mainstream political institutions embraced us. In 1948, Charlotta Bass, a newspaper publisher and editor from Harris’ home state of California, had been a Republican for over 30 years. She left the party out of sheer frustration at not being able to find support for a racially and gender-inclusive agenda and joined the newly formed Progressive Party. Bass became the vice presidential nominee on the party’s ticket in 1952, the first Black woman to be nominated by any national party.
Twenty years later, Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm of New York broke another barrier as a Democrat by becoming the first Black woman to run for president on a major party ticket. She was anti-racist, anti-sexist, pro-choice, pro-labor, anti-war, fiercely independent, and above all principled. But neither major political party has been eager to embrace women like Bass and Chisholm as legitimate constituents and agents, despite Black women’s fierce dedication and loyalty to them.
As the first Black and South Asian-American and the first female vice president, Harris will carry the weight of her ancestors into the second-highest public office in the land. This is a position of enormous privilege and power. It offers an unprecedented opportunity to push our country closer to justice and equality for marginalized communities, and for all Americans. The expectations will be high even as we know the opposition to her, especially as a Black woman leader, will be hostile from some quarters.
She is poised to be a pivotal player in international and domestic affairs, thanks to her service on the Homeland Security, Intelligence, and Judiciary committees. She can help direct big issues like criminal justice reform, voting rights protections, health care and wage growth for teachers and other workers, as the second most influential voice in the rooms she is in. Her most critical role, however, may be speaking with President-elect Joe Biden as his most trusted adviser. She will be a perpetual reminder not to neglect the forgotten base, the people of color, especially the Black women and men, who helped elect him, when the white majority turned the other way.
‘She should assemble her own foreign-policy team’
Anne-Marie Slaughter is the CEO of New America. From 2009 to 2011, she served as director of policy planning for the United States Department of State, the first woman to hold that position.
Kamala Harris will inspire an entire generation of new leaders just by being who she is in the office she holds, but she can do so much more than that.
Domestically, Harris has a critical role to play as bridge-builder. A President Joe Biden will seek to be a healer and a unifier. Yet for so many Americans of color, the failure of a majority of white Americans to repudiate Trump’s unapologetically racist politics creates a gaping moral divide. How can they make peace with fellow Americans who apparently define “the true America” as white America? Harris actually knows what it feels like to be marginalized and diminished on a daily basis because of both gender and skin color. At the same time, she has also served as prosecutor, representing “law and order” in ways that cross color lines and political divides. She must find a way to lead a new national conversation, one that is unflinchingly honest about the hypocrisy and injustice of our past and present but that is also based on love of country and a commitment to forge a common future.
Equally important, although less evident, is the role that Harris could and should play abroad. Most observers assume that Biden will effectively be his own secretary of State; he is deeply experienced in foreign policy with a vast array of relationships around the world. Harris, however, represents a new way for the United States to be in the world, as a country that both reflects and connects the peoples of every continent. She should assemble her own foreign policy team, as Biden did when he was vice president, to complement the president’s advisers but also to develop her own ideas and trade on her unique strengths as the face of America abroad. The United States will need to play a very different global role in the 21st century than in the 20th; Harris can be a catalyst for much of that rethinking.
‘The Biden-Harris victory chips away at the perception that female candidates face systematic disadvantages’
Jennifer Lawless is a professor of politics at the University of Virginia, whose research focuses on political ambition, campaigns and elections, and media and politics.
From the perch of the vice presidency, Harris has the potential to change the face of U.S. politics. Harris’ election is a clear signal that the American people are willing to elect women. This reality isn’t new. Female candidates have done just as well as men in primaries and general elections, on both sides of the aisle, for decades. Hillary Clinton, remember, even won the popular vote for the highest office in the land. But the reality of women’s electoral success flies in the face of perceptions of widespread bias from voters, donors and the media. As a result, many women think they need to be twice as good to get half as far as men in politics. That discourages them from running for office in the first place.
And that’s a problem. After all, studies have found that women in Congress deliver more federal spending to their districts and sponsor more legislation than their male colleagues. They prioritize requests pertaining to “women’s” issues. They have greater success keeping their sponsored bills alive longer in the legislative process. When given an opportunity to speak about issues of their choosing during one-minute speeches, congresswomen in both parties are more likely than men to speak and to speak about women. And women are more likely than men to participate in the social engagement activities and traditions that contribute to the social fabric of Congress, which help make the political arena a somewhat more civil, and somewhat less dysfunctional, place to work. Women, in other words, are good for the governing process.
The Biden-Harris victory chips away at the perception that female candidates face systematic disadvantages. Chipping away at that perception is key to convincing more women—and the party leaders, donors, and activists who recruit candidates and help them raise money—that they can successfully follow in Harris’ historic footsteps and affect policy change at all levels of government across the country.
‘Giving Harris a leading role in the coronavirus response may give Americans some needed confidence’
Amanda Clayton is a professor of political science at Vanderbilt University. Her research concerns political institutions, representation and public policy, with a focus on gender and politics.
When Joe Biden served as vice president in the Barack Obama administration, he held important policy roles from the very beginning on issues both foreign (Afghanistan) and domestic (the economic recovery). It seems likely that Biden will want Harris to serve an equally active role.
What areas might this be in? Let me just mention the one that will be the most pressing: the coronavirus pandemic. There may be some symbolism to Harris’ role here in multiple dimensions. First, Vice President Mike Pence was tasked with managing the pandemic, and the Biden-Harris administration may want to highlight her competence as a foil to the incompetence of her predecessor in this area. Second, health care is an issue on which women politicians tend to devote more attention than do men. U.S. congresswomen are more likely than U.S. congressmen to talk about health care in congressional debates by a large margin. Around the world, countries with more women in office tend to spend more on public health, and many female leaders have been praised for their coronavirus responses in their countries (New Zealand, Germany, Finland). Given that health care is an issue that women tend to “own,” giving Harris a leading role here may give Americans some needed confidence in our national response.
‘Harris will take the work she did as a U.S. senator even further, dismantling structural racism and bias’
Kimberly Peeler-Allen is the co-founder of Higher Heights for America, a national organization committed to building the political power and leadership of Black women.
Because of her experience as a prosecutor and a state attorney general, Harris is uniquely qualified to take on the interconnectedness of issues such as race, education, economic opportunity and our criminal justice system. As vice president, she will take the work she did as a U.S. senator even further, dismantling structural racism and bias in all aspects of our society, and increasing educational and economic opportunity for all. The country will greatly benefit from her work and commitment to fixing our criminal justice system and to resetting prosecutorial standards at the federal, state and local levels, allowing more Americans to thrive, not just survive.
‘I would like to see her doing things that are clearly and specifically for and about Black Americans’
Keneshia Grant is a professor of political science at Howard University and the author of The Great Migration and the Democratic Party: Black Voters and the Realignment of American Politics in the 20th Century.
Vice President-elect Kamala Harris’ symbolic importance is undeniable. What has been less clear over the course of American politics is whether Black politicians will center their identity in their policymaking as much as they do in their politics. The most significant thing Harris can do is to strike a meaningful balance between who she is as a symbolic figure and what she can substantively provide through her position. I would like to see her doing things that are clearly and specifically for and about Black Americans. For example, Harris would be uniquely positioned to be effective in any attempt to re-imagine this nation’s criminal justice system. That would start with making her central to the selection of the Biden administration’s attorney general. It would continue with having her draw on her experience as a prosecutor and state attorney general to be the leading voice in any efforts to reform policing and law enforcement that may come from the White House.
As another example, Harris is the first graduate of a historically black college or university to hold national elected office. As such, I would like to see her strengthen the relationship between the White House and these critically important institutions of social mobility for Black people. Harris should use her influence to increase funding to HBCUs beyond the levels of the Obama and Trump administrations to the $1 billion advocated by Michael Lomax, president and CEO of the United Negro College Fund.
‘A new federal approach to sentencing guidelines, the use of consent decrees, and drug classification and treatment’
Keisha N. Blain is a professor of history at the University of Pittsburgh, a fellow at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard University and author of Set the World on Fire: Black Nationalist Women and the Global Struggle for Freedom.
One of the thornier issues during the Democratic primary and the presidential campaign was Biden’s history with criminal justice reform and the 1994 crime bill. Given Harris’ background as a prosecutor (and facing her own detractors on criminal justice issues), one would imagine that Biden would rely on Harris’ experience to chart out a new path on criminal justice reform that Democrats around the country can support. It’s unlikely that a Biden administration would advocate for radical goals such as defunding the police—those campaigns will have to continue at a local level. However, Biden and Harris can propose plans for a new federal approach to sentencing guidelines, the use of consent decrees, and drug classification and treatment. Drawing on her own experiences as a woman of color, Harris would also be uniquely positioned to advocate federal policies that would address issues such as racial and ethnic disparities in pregnancy-related deaths.
‘Harris knows what it is like to try to make it on your own in an unequal economy and raise a family’
Linda Hirshman is the author of Sisters in Law: How Sandra Day O’Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg Went to the Supreme Court and Changed the World.
A trailblazer like Kamala Harris can make change in two ways. First, as a symbol, as the first female Supreme Court justice, Sandra Day O’Connor, did. When she was confirmed, tickets to her swearing-in were in such demand the Court had to move the ceremony to a bigger venue. Sociable and energetic like O’Connor, Harris will be a great symbolic first; I imagine her speaking schedule will be comparable to O’Connor’s, which was so packed that people thought she had hired a double.
Second, Harris also brings to the party her unique experience: as a woman, as a person of color and as the daughter of immigrants. And in politics and law, we have seen that experience matters. For instance, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg read her male colleagues the riot act (and complained to the media!) when they made jokes about being naked in high school in the case of a strip search of a teenage girl. Ginsburg knew what it was like to be a 13-year-old girl in high school.
Harris’ identity as female, mixed-race, raised by a divorced woman, and a first-generation American actually merges with the identity of the new Democratic Party, which makes her more attuned to the policy issues affecting people in the party. Although they put up an old white male pol on top this time, the election returns reflect a party that is heavily female, racially diverse, younger and concentrated in the urban centers of American growth and innovation. When she ran on her own, she had a platform—sponsoring the “Green New Deal,” raising the corporate tax rate to 35 percent, six months of paid family leave—much more compatible with the new Democratic identity than Biden’s platform is. She knows what it is like to try to make it on your own in an unequal economy and raise a family.
I bet she’s looking forward to lobbying Joe Biden on these issues and bringing him further into the modern Democratic Party. Nor should he mind. The last time a more liberal vice president lobbied his president to take a modern stance, Biden got same-sex marriage out of the Obama White House.
‘Harris will be uniquely positioned to influence how the Democratic Party works with and invests in organizing communities of color’
Atima Omara is a Democratic political strategist and the former president of the Young Democrats of America.
Vice President-elect Kamala Harris will no doubt show a new generation of girls and young women, particularly of color, what is possible in American politics for them. In the vice presidency, Harris will be uniquely positioned to influence how the Democratic Party works with and invests in organizing communities of color. But beyond that, she is also uniquely poised, given her background, to work with those in Congress on what can be achieved on criminal justice reform and other important policy issues relevant to communities of color, women and immigrants in the United States.
‘Another significant outcome of her election is what it means for the future of women’s candidacies’
Debbie Walsh is director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.
This is, to put it mildly, a historic moment in the story of women’s participation in American politics. That it happens during the centennial of the 19th Amendment, which expanded some women’s political participation while women like Harris remained excluded, is all the more symbolic. To women and girls of all walks of life, of every political persuasion, Harris’ ascension to the vice presidency broadens the horizons of the possible.
But another significant outcome of her election is what it means for the future of women’s candidacies. The women and candidates of color who ran for president this cycle were continually confronted with the looming question of their “electability.” Her success is a clear message that the American electorate is comfortable and confident that a woman, and a woman of color, can serve as vice president, and as president if need be. Harris’ election proves that candidates that look like her are electable, opening the door for future generations to walk through.
‘Harris will show the world what a strong woman leader looks like’
Barbara Lee is president and founder of the Barbara Lee Family Foundation.
The singular strengths that have enabled her to succeed over the course of her career (despite facing elevated standards as a Black woman) will make Kamala Harris exactly the kind of vice president we need right now: one with courage, energy and most of all, empathy.
With her formidable smarts, frank communication style, and innate ability to connect deeply with everyday Americans, Vice President-elect Harris will show the world what a strong woman leader looks like. And she’ll inspire women and girls here in the United States to run for office, in a brand new and powerful way. At a moment when our country is faced with the most serious crises in generations, and women and people of color have been disproportionately affected by Covid-19, Harris will bring her unique style of leadership to the White House: strong, decisive and compassionate. I said back in July that Harris was made for this moment, and that is more evident now than ever.
‘Harris should help Joe Biden with restoring justice to the Justice Department’
Elizabeth Holtzman, a lawyer and former Democratic congresswoman from New York, is the author of Who Said It Would Be Easy?: One Woman’s Life in the Political Arena.
Having a female vice president is an extraordinary breakthrough for women. It means that a woman’s voice will be at the table where key decisions are made. It brings a woman’s perspective and her experience to bear on critical decisions for the nation. It means that girls, and boys, will see that a woman counts—and not just any woman but a woman of color and a daughter of immigrants—at the highest levels of our government. If she does nothing aside from inspiring young girls to think that they matter, and that they can reach for the stars, that would be enough. But Kamala brings her years of experience as a prosecutor and lawyer as well.
As far as the issues go, she should help Joe Biden with restoring justice to the Justice Department, including on issues of racial equality in the justice system, ending the cruel and illegal immigration and refugee policies and fighting for women’s rights across the board. This is a great moment for America, and for the world.
‘Two women in the direct line of presidential succession. What a difference a day makes’
Sophia A. Nelson is an American author, political strategist, opinion writer and former House Republican Committee counsel.
After 243 years, the nation has its first female John Adams.
Harris walked into the history books once again this week. She has a heavy burden on her back but one that she is used to carrying as a woman of color. And she carries it well. Harris has been mocked for her laughter and dancing. I think it's refreshing to see a strong black woman, who is also full of light, laughter, love and joy in her life. God knows we need more of that!
Harris will presumably use her celebrity, and newfound global platform to promote issues of awareness around women of color both here at home and abroad. She is likely to tackle pay equity and other issues that women have been fighting for since the 1970s. She will likely chair the coronavirus task force, as her predecessor Mike Pence has. With the recent spikes in Covid-19 cases, she will likely have her hands full right from the start.
Yet she will be able to do what no other woman before her has done: She will have the ear of the president of the United States as a full partner, just as then-Vice President Joe Biden had the ear of the first Black president, Barack Obama. Harris will be the last one in the room to tell the president what she thinks, and she, as a woman and as a woman of color, will be able to see the world through a wholly different lens than any other vice president in our history.
Today is a proud day for America. We now will have a man as president, a younger woman as vice president and presumably an older, more seasoned woman as speaker of the House if Nancy Pelosi is reelected. That is two women in the direct line of presidential succession. What a difference a day makes!
Today is a proud day for women. And today is a monumental day for women of color like me. One of our own has finally shattered that second-highest political glass ceiling.
‘She can begin to address the human rights abuses of the Hindu Right in India’
Martha Craven Nussbaum is a philosopher, author, and distinguished professor of law and ethics at the University of Chicago.
My view is that Vice President-elect Kamala Harris should establish quickly and clearly that she is a vice president for all Americans, not an identity-politics vice president. Looking four years down the road, she will need to begin positioning herself as a strong presidential candidate, and that means, in terms of where our country is today, not harping on identity issues.
However, I do think that with her knowledge of India she can begin to address the human rights abuses of the Hindu right in India, which most Indian-Americans in Congress have avoided addressing, in part because they take money from Hindu right supporters in the United States. (California Congressman Ro Khanna is an honorable exception.) This is, or should be, a bipartisan issue. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was denied a visa to enter the United States under the George W. Bush administration because of his complicity in killing Muslims in Gujarat, and we ought to return to an honorable stance in favor of human rights for all Indians as a condition of any agreements the United States makes.
‘Harris has special insight into the global dimensions of immigration around the world’
Nitasha Tamar Sharma is a professor of African-American studies and Asian-American studies at Northwestern University.
Vice President-elect Kamala Harris has been analyzed through either the lens of her identity or her politics, but rarely have commentators looked at these things together. When observers and analysts have considered Harris’ politics as an extension of her identity, it’s generally to the tune of the dissonance or tension between her being a Black woman and her prosecutorial past. However, Harris has an opportunity, owing partly to her identity—as a woman, a Black woman, a South Asian woman, and a Black and South Asian female vice president—to address a broader scope of issues upon election.
First is immigration. She has special insight into the global dimensions of immigration around the world, and especially in the United States, that is not informed by a single-group lens. That is, she is aware of the dynamics of immigration from Asia (where her mother is from) as well as the Caribbean (where her father is from), as well as how they are tied together. This knowledge will help Harris to understand the factors that are common to some groups of immigrants as well as those that are group-specific.
Second, Harris will potentially have the ability to address questions of racial unrest and economic inequalities in more expansive and possibly nuanced ways than her predecessors. In part, this is because she grew up in an Indian household embraced by a larger Black community and the general multi-racialism of the Bay Area. The Black and Asian parts of her identity also give her insight into how those groups are differentially located within our economic and political systems. This insight will be key to informing Biden on how to address questions of inequality, police violence and access to equal resources.
The Harris that we do know may be a person whose identity and politics sometimes align in uncomfortable ways. However, the Harris we have yet to learn about may be able to align her identities with her politics in ways that can move us toward a more equitable nation in our relations abroad and with regard to race relations domestically.
‘As the daughter of immigrants, she can offer experience and insight into immigration policy in the Biden administration’
Mary C. Curtis is a columnist and host of the “Equal Time” podcast at CQ Roll Call.
He called her a “monster.” But after Jan. 20, 2021, private citizen Donald J. Trump will have to address her as Vice President Kamala Harris, even if he deliberately mispronounces her first name. Can a Black woman just sit with that for a moment? The physical and emotional chaos of 2020 weighed heavily on all Americans, but Black women had to process quite a bit, including the disproportionate effects of a pandemic and calls for justice for Breonna Taylor, a Black woman killed by police, and other names too many have already forgotten. The year draws to an end with one Black woman, Stacey Abrams, credited with helping Georgia move toward a shade of blue, and another making history.
While Trump touted his support for funding historically Black colleges and universities, Harris, as a Howard University graduate, raises the visibility of the work and mission of HBCUs. As the daughter of immigrants, she can offer experience and insight into immigration policy in the Biden administration, as the first priority should be reuniting separated children and parents. To meet a pressing American challenge that has brought Americans into the streets, she can be the voice of criminal justice reform, turning the “Kamala is a cop” label on its head. The comprehensive Justice in Policing Act of 2020 she co-sponsored as a senator is a start. Right now, though, Trump sucks much of the oxygen out of any news cycle, it’s Harris’ turn, and, as usual for a Black woman, she won’t have much time to make sense of daunting American challenges before being asked to solve them—all while navigating the fraught space of being a “first.”
‘Harris has an opportunity to build and work with progressive voters’
Treva Lindsey is a professor of women’s, gender and sexuality studies at the Ohio State University.
An incredible organizing effort, led largely by people of color, and particularly Black women, led to this electoral victory for the Biden-Harris ticket. The expectations should be high. I think she will be one of the more active vice presidents in modern U.S. history, working very closely with Biden on issues such as Covid-19, as both a health and economic crisis, targeted outreach to the communities of color who put them in office, and criminal legal and justice reform.
Depending on the outcome of the pending Georgia runoffs for the U.S. Senate, she may also have a much more active role as the president of the Senate. I think this could potentially be where she wields the most substantive power for the Biden administration.
Black voters should have the ear of this administration, but we don't seem to be moving in that direction. Without these voters, this administration does not happen. People will push back against efforts to silence this powerful group of voters, and Harris will play a significant role for the administration in addressing and responding to criticisms with regard to how communities of color are being engaged.
Although neither Harris or Biden appealed to more progressive voters in the Democratic party, Harris has an opportunity to build and work with these voters and progressive elected officials to take a stronger stance on environmental issues, raising the minimum wage, taxes on the wealthy (which does have more widespread support), houselessness, immigration policy and gender equity. I am interested to see whether she pushes the administration a bit further left from the center, as Biden seeks civility and a more bipartisan way of governing. It is possible, but I would not be shocked if she and Biden align on a more centrist agenda. She will be the face of a lot of this work.
‘She has spent her life fighting to protect the vulnerable and ensuring everyone has a seat at the table’
Vanita Gupta is president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. She was formerly the head of the Civil Rights Division at the Justice Department.
Kamala Harris’ victory is especially poignant after four years of demagoguery, fearmongering, racism and xenophobia from those in power. She has spent her life fighting to protect the vulnerable and ensuring everyone has a seat at the table. Over her trailblazing career, she has been a champion for health care, police accountability, a fair minimum wage, LGBTQ equality, voting rights and so much more. We know she will bring that quest for justice, and that drive for real change, with her to the new administration and to this new day for our nation. Her story and her leadership reflect the America we aspire to be—one that is inclusive, just and fair.
‘My hope is that Kamala is instrumental in insisting diversity does not start and end at the top’
Kirsten Greenidge is a playwright from Boston, Massachusetts.
As Kamala Harris ascends to the vice presidency, much will continue to be made about the embodied diversity she will bring to that role: the first to identify as a woman; the first to identify as South-Asian American; the first to identify as Black. And the fact that her identity was seen as a strength rather than as a liability is monumental as well.
But my hope for the Biden-Harris administration to come is that from its inception it builds a coalition that embraces a multiplicity of diversity—of experience, of thought; of gender identity and expression. My hope is that the administration to come actively fills its Cabinet, its diplomatic posts, its ambassadorships, its positions of all levels, with individuals who exemplify the rich tapestry that is America, and that Kamala is instrumental in insisting diversity does not start and end at the top.
‘Harris knows first-hand the disparities in our criminal justice system’
Daina Ramey Berry is the chair of the history department at the University of Texas at Austin and co-author of A Black Women’s History of the United States.
Vice President-elect Kamala Harris is uniquely positioned to bring several issues to the forefront of American politics because of the intersectionality that she embodies. As an African American woman of Indian descent, she knows firsthand the challenges women of color experience in this country. She is also a champion for gender equity and inclusion, and the American people will expect her to make significant changes in this area. She also knows first-hand the disparities in our criminal justice system from her work as a prosecutor and attorney general for the state of California.
However, many politicians make the mistake of thinking African Americans are a monolithic group. But we care deeply about the same issues other Americans care about—equality, education and health care—and we have several different approaches to address these issues. Black women across the country express concerns about access to affordable health care, yet, maternal mortality is two to three times the rate among Black women as it is among white women in the United States. I hope to see changes in this area with a woman of color in a position of power in the White House. Americans will be looking to the administration to make good on their promises to provide more equity in all of these areas, and Harris has proven she will be a worthy partner. She has championed health care and will almost certainly be central to the fight for expanding affordable health care for all Americans.
‘Harris understands the connection between the injustices of our systems and its connection to inequity in health, education and finance’
Sonal Shah is a professor and founding executive director at the Beeck Center for Social Impact + Innovation at Georgetown University. She served as deputy assistant to the president for Barack Obama and founded the White House Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation.
As senator and attorney general for California, Harris showed a commitment to designing a better justice system at a time when racial justice and systemic change are at the forefront of our country. Harris is the daughter of a single mother and immigrant parents, and she witnessed our country’s struggle through busing and integration. She understands the connection between the injustices of our systems and its connection to inequity in health, education and finance. Harris has a unique opportunity to end the gridlock in the Senate, while at the same time impacting millions of women, people of color, young girls and boys, who will see in her the many identities that each of us carry with us daily. A Biden-Harris administration can restore trust in our institutions that is so deeply broken in the wake of a presidency that ripped our norms to shreds.
‘She may also play a starring role in bringing our democracy back from the brink of collapse’
Oneka LaBennett is associate professor of American studies and ethnicity at the University of Southern California.
Vice President-elect Kamala Harris’ watershed achievement has powerful representational significance for all of the little girls who dressed like her just last week for Halloween. Especially for girls of color, becoming the vice president of the United States is, for the first time, not just a fantasy, but an attainable goal. We are selling ourselves, America’s daughters, and Harris short, however, if we limit this historical moment to the ambitions of a generation of young girls, as poignant as those aspirations may be. We should also look at how Harris’ ties to Black and brown communities have positioned her to understand the particular social inequalities and injustices these communities face.
Harris has already demonstrated a commitment to addressing racial justice by taking a leadership role in the Justice in Policing Act of 2020, and evoking her membership in the Black community in framing that legislation: “America’s sidewalks are stained with Black blood,” she said. “In the wake of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor’s murders, we must ask ourselves: How many more times must our families and our communities be put through the trauma of an unarmed Black man or woman’s killing at the hands of the very police who are sworn to protect them?” The vice president-elect’s track record on this, coupled with Biden’s promise that she will always be the last person in the room, much as he was for President Barack Obama, suggests that she will have the president’s ear on issues that are paramount to African Americans. Harris may well serve as the connective tissue between the president and broader groups including the Congressional Black Caucus and Judiciary Committee members whose constituents will look to them to effect real change.
To be sure, any critical assessment of Harris’ record as a district attorney and attorney general must come to terms with decisions that arguably increased the suffering of Black communities, but it bodes well for her that she has legislated in response to the national outcries of Black Lives Matter protesters. Still, more work needs to be done—a grand jury charged no officers with killing Taylor. With Black women overwhelmingly fueling the Biden-Harris victory, we need Harris to be the person in the room who advocates for our lives.
Harris’ considerable experience as an attorney general and U.S. senator means that she has already been in many key rooms. In this moment, as Biden wrestles the office from a president who has attempted to undermine the will of American voters by falsely claiming that the election was stolen, Harris’ judiciary and constitutional know-how is an undeniable asset. The vice presidentelect’s committee expertise may well be called upon as the Biden administration tends to the security, budgetary and intelligence fallout of an administration that fostered massive cracks and fissures along all of those lines.
With Harris, yes, we finally have a Black woman and an Indian American who will be the last voice the president hears in the Oval Office and in the Situation Room. But we also have a skilled prosecutor and an adept public servant uniquely positioned to inspire young girls while fighting for the very lives of African Americans. That she may also play a starring role in bringing our democracy back from the brink of collapse will be a service to all Americans.
‘Harris’ election might augur the dawn of rational, humane, and progressive politics in the United States’
Manisha Sinha is Draper Chair in American History at the University of Connecticut and author of The Slave’s Cause: A History of Abolition.
For Harris’ election to be truly transformational, the symbolism of her election must be backed with a range of progressive policies that will benefit the constituencies she represents. President-elect Joe Biden has already made it clear that he visualizes the vice president’s role as far more than simply ceremonial. Like his experience as vice president in the Obama administration, he wants Harris to take on substantial policy initiatives. She would be most suited to address the urgent issues of systemic racial inequality and reform of law enforcement.
With the possibility of a divided Senate, where Republicans led by Mitch McConnell will play their typical role of obstruction, a Harris vote may break a potential tie on crucial legislation ranging from climate change, economic regulation to progressive taxation. In short, Harris’ election goes well beyond symbolic: It might augur the dawn of rational, humane and progressive politics in the United States.
‘The vice presidency can be a bully pulpit, too’
Jo Freeman, a professor of history at Yale University, has published 11 books, including three on women and politics, two of which won political science prizes for scholarship.
What a vice president can do depends on his or her relationship with the president. Harris needs to maintain a good one with President-elect Joe Biden or she will be ignored as Lyndon B. Johnson was ignored by John F. Kennedy.
What Biden needs most is a Democratic Senate, which will confirm his judicial appointments and pass his other policies. Harris is already a semi-celebrity. Speaking in states where Democrats are running in 2022 will draw crowds and hopefully enhance the Democrats' chance of winning the Senate. It will also enhance Harris' chance of becoming president in 2024, if not sooner.
Teddy Roosevelt said the presidency was a "bully pulpit." The vice presidency can be, if the president agrees. Harris should use it to speak truth to the American people and guide them to healthy practices and economic recovery.
‘Our bodies carry history, culture and hope’
Our bodies carry history, culture and hope. Vice President-elect Kamala Harris holds the history, culture and hope of three continents—North America, Africa and Asia. As a first in so many categories, she defies limited imaginations and resists simple reduction. For some, Harris is viewed as too progressive, and for others, as too conservative. What is undeniable is that Harris cannot help but lead ably from a foundation of rigorous education and political experience—all through the wide lens of a multiracial American woman and daughter of immigrants. As attorney general of California and as a U.S. senator with deep knowledge of foreign relations and a genuine concern for the environment, Harris has more than demonstrated that she is a principled, capable and moral public servant.
Let the record stand: Today is occasion for national joy. Harris’ leadership and service have the power to heal and restore our beloved nation and our place in the world.
[Originally published on November 7, 2020 via POLITICO]