Young, gifted and black: Joe Biden’s dream partner
In choosing Kamala Harris as his Democratic vice-presidential running mate, Joe Biden has probably found the person who most ideally complements his bid to take over the White House in November’s election. Few people are more familiar with the role of vice president, what it takes to handle it and the required delicate relations with the president than Biden himself, who was Barack Obama’s partner for eight years.
In some respects the roles are now reversed. In 2008 Obama was the young, progressive, first black presidential candidate in American history, oozing charisma but lacking experience on the national stage and with insufficient appeal to capture the center ground of American politics. Those two factors are what Biden provided; as one of the longest serving senators and considerably older than Obama, he appealed to those voters who were still not ready for the first African-American president, let alone someone with limited experience. Now it is Biden who has had to achieve a balancing act in choosing his running mate.
Biden will be 78 by the time he assumes office, should he win. He is a white man who entered the Senate at the age of 31 and has never left politics. He himself sees his presidency as a transition to the next generation of young, exciting and ambitious Democrats, and by asking Kamala Harris to support his bid, Biden has almost instantly made her the natural frontrunner for the Democrats in 2024.
After Biden won the Democratic nomination in March, his pledge to pick a woman as his running mate was universally welcomed. Staggeringly for a country that has been independent for nearly 250 years, not one woman has held the position of vice president, let alone president. In no other walk of life has the assertion of the 1776 Declaration of Independence that “all Men are created equal” been so narrowly applied; despite amounting to less than half of the population they have always controlled the White House.
A record number of 102 women currently serve in the House of Representatives, but that is still only 23.4 percent of the chamber’s voting members, although Nancy Pelosi, one of America’s most impressive politicians, is in her second term as Speaker. In the Senate the situation is not much better, with only 26 women among 100 senators. Kamala Harris, the daughter of Indian and Jamaican immigrants, is therefore still something of an anomaly in a political landscape dominated by white men.
He himself sees his presidency as a transition to the next generation of young, exciting and ambitious Democrats, and by asking Kamala Harris to support his bid, Biden has almost instantly made her the natural frontrunner for the Democrats in 2024.
With Biden maintaining a 10-point lead over Donald Trump, while the president is looking increasingly bewildered, out of sorts and out of his depth in dealing with the coronavirus crisis and its resultant economic havoc, the Biden-Harris bid increasingly looks like a winning ticket. In selecting his vice-presidential nominee Biden was spoiled for choice when presented with several distinguished female politicians, notably Senators Elizabeth Warren and Tammy Duckworth, former national security adviser Susan Rice, and Representative Karen Bass.
All could have brought different qualities to the position. Biden has been clear about his criteria for choosing a running mate, and has not shirked the issue of his age, so whoever he chose had to be ready to step into the country’s top job and the most powerful position in the world. This meant ensuring that his choice be not only considerably younger, as is Kamala Harris at 55, but should also be someone whose politics, ideology and style of governing are sufficiently aligned with his own, and who has enough popular appeal and experience in public life to be able to take over the presidency at any time in the next four years; or preferably to use that time not only to fulfil the traditional role of vice president, but to gradually move to the forefront of potential successors to Biden in 2024.
On all these accounts Kamala Harris more than ticks all the boxes. The other candidates, as good as they are, are probably less electable either because they are seen as too left-leaning, such as Warren, hold controversial foreign policy views like Susan Rice, or just lack experience. Harris is a relative novice when it comes to national politics, having served less than four years in the Senate; but in her challenging role as attorney general of California, and by demonstrating her sharp legal mind while serving on Senate committees and putting Trump’s officials on the spot and in their place, she has shown rare leadership qualities. In the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd by police officers, Harris was one of the clearest voices calling for police reform and radical change in the country’s race relations. She has gained credibility among minorities as not only a defender of their rights, but someone with a pragmatic and constructive approach to such issues. She is more of a reformer than a revolutionary, which for many middle-ground voters feels less threatening. Trump’s Twitter account might repeatedly call her “radical left,” but nothing could be further from the truth, and her views on increasing the minimum wage, funding education, and even gun control are all nuanced to say the least; one might argue that they don’t go far enough.
With November’s contest less than three months away, Biden’s team is now more or less in place and the Democrats can fully concentrate on the policy areas where they will challenge President Trump. It remains to be seen if the great American public will buy into the Biden-Harris ticket as the dream team to extricate them from one of the worst predicaments in the country’s history.
- Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg