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The untold story of Kamala Harris is about defining her historic role

OpinionThe untold story of Kamala Harris is about defining her historic role

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The American vice presidency is one of this country’s most enigmatic roles.   

As stated in the Constitution, the vice president oversees the Senate and assumes the duties of the president in his absence.  

These two seemingly vague and opaque roles in the Constitution leave each modern American president to determine how they want their vice president to serve in their administration.  

GROWING NUMBER OF HOUSE DEMS LOOK TO KAMALA AS POSSIBLE BIDEN REPLACEMENT

During this election cycle, defining service seems even more complicated for the Biden administration as it fights to fulfill President Joe Biden’s promise to two of his key constituencies: women and African Americans.  

Vice President Kamala Harris delivers remarks on reproductive rights at Ritchie Coliseum on the campus of the University of Maryland on June 24, 2024, in College Park, Maryland.

Vice President Kamala Harris delivers remarks on reproductive rights at Ritchie Coliseum on the campus of the University of Maryland on June 24, 2024, in College Park, Maryland. (Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)

With five months until the election, Vice President Kamala Harris may be instrumental in defining her role, potentially becoming the secret ingredient for a campaign facing tied poll numbers and a disillusioned electorate.  

Harris is the first woman, African American and Asian American to do so. For her political critics, this has become the core message of the relentless attacks against her. For key members of the Biden coalition, it has become the foundation of demands that she be more visible.  

Journalist and Harris biographer Dr. Nii-Quartelai Quartey believes these demands and critiques are unfounded and unrealistic.  

“Like many historic firsts, folks have projected unrealistic expectations onto Vice President Harris, yet her small and scrappy staff has managed to outmaneuver her detractors by going deep on a handful of issues while dutifully being the governing partner this president said he wanted,” said Quartey, whose forthcoming book “Kamala, The Motherland, and Me,” chronicles the vice president’s historic trip to Ghana, Tanzania and Zambia. 

In the background of all this news and a gridlocked Capitol Hill, the vice president works feverishly to effect change with her influence, the bully pulpit and the power to convene.  

During a recent interview with talk show host Sherri Shepherd, Harris talked about one of those issues, maternal health. With an unusually high maternal mortality rate, maternity departments shutting down across America and access to high-quality maternal and birthing care for urban and rural families at risk, Harris is both raising awareness and pushing state governors to do more.  

“When I became vice president … only three states in our nation had extended postpartum coverage from two months to 12 months – only three states,” Harris told Shepherd. “I then issued a challenge to all of these states: Extend postpartum care to 12 months. As of today, 46 states have signed on.” 

And with more than 5.6 million women living in counties with no or limited access to maternity care services in 2023 and a 14% increase in pregnancy-related deaths in 2020, the vice president’s work affects everyday people, even though it might not make the local news, cable primetime or daily papers.  

Ukraine peace summit

Vice President Kamala Harris, left, shakes hands with Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy during the Summit on peace in Ukraine, in Obbürgen near Lucerne, Switzerland, Saturday, June 15, 2024. (Alessandro della Valle/Keystone via AP)

Unlike most contemporary vice presidents, Harris didn’t inherit money from her Indian-born mother or Jamaican-born father. She inherited social conscience, self-reliance, empowerment and hard work that can only come from being part of the Indo-Caribbean American immigrant experience. 

Born in Oakland to two immigrants pursuing the highest of higher education, Harris’s first-generation upbringing likely placed her in an environment where working hard, learning harder and achieving were prerequisites to unlocking the adoration of parents born outside America’s borders.  

With a Biology Ph.D. for a mother and an economist for a father, Harris’s childhood, like most immigrant households in the late ’60s and beyond, was likely framed with the understanding that the American Dream was afforded to a fortunate few folks in other countries.  

This Indo-Caribbean immigrant upbringing is likely what keeps Harris unfazed and focused on reshaping policy in the areas she can, despite the lack of adequate recognition.  

Case in point: the Biden administration’s foreign policy approach toward the continent of Africa and the Caribbean.  

As she battles decades of Chinese foreign investment and influence peddling on the continent of Africa, Harris endeavors to change African leaders’ perception of an outdated, healthcare infrastructure-centered American foreign policy. 

During Harris’ visit to the continent last year, Zambian President Hakainde Hichilema defined his relationship with the United States by saying, “When I’m in Washington, I’m not against Beijing. Equally, when I’m in Bejing, I’m not against Washington.”  

This perception across the continent would likely change by the time Harris boarded Air Force Two on her return to the United States in April 2023. Her trip delivered $100 million in new governance, security and development assistance for Benin, Togo, Ghana, Guinea and Côte d’Ivoire.  

In the background of all this news and a gridlocked Capitol Hill, the vice president works feverishly to effect change with her influence, the bully pulpit and the power to convene.  

A move that, for Quartey, exemplifies her vision and under-reported success.  

“In Africa, last Spring, I witnessed firsthand the vice president’s noticeable influence in international affairs,” he said. “As the vice president travels to Switzerland this weekend for the Summit on Peace in Ukraine, I’m reminded of her notably impressive application of social, economic and national security-related opportunities and challenges abroad but sadly under-appreciated at home.”  

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Since last spring, Harris has been instrumental in increasing private investment on the continent, expanding access to capital for young African entrepreneurs and internet access. These moves will strengthen Americans’ posture on the continent, which has the largest youth population globally.  

Beyond maternal health and foreign policy, Harris has also been a leading voice on ending America’s scourge of gun violence.  Recently, she teamed up with Quavo of the Migos to aid in the reframing of his nephew Takeoff’s tragic death and bring new players to the table to ensure that the United States curbs gun violence.  

While all three examples are abbreviated, they speak to a vice president writing her job description in a polarized political environment that doesn’t applaud success.  

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The vague definitions surrounding the role and Harris’ lack of comparison to her predecessors — all previously White men — have placed her in a position where overzealous media and louder-than-normal opponents have prevented the electorate from hearing about and evaluating her successes.  

This regrettable reality should cause pause for all.  

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