Vice Presidents were not meant to be powerful. It is “the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived”, said John Adams, the nation’s first-ever vice president. Until 1804, it was a role given to the loser of the presidential election; a non-office consolation prize that saw the holder rarely present beyond their role as president of the Senate.
Throughout the 20th century, the vice president was an understudy for the president; deputising at charity functions and sitting in on important meetings. They were a senior presidential adviser who you would happily invite to the party, provided that the first choice couldn’t make it. An understudy, just one who would nab your job should you take a bullet or have to hastily depart for some criminal behaviour that the Senate were willing to convict you for.
This summed up the vice presidency of Mike Pence. The snow-haired former Governor of Indiana was never going to be given a starring role, with his reality star boss always wanting to be centre of the picture. Pence would instead play the role of a silent and brooding background figure, always in shot, but never the headline – at least until the final two weeks of Trump’s presidency, when Pence shed his inhibitions and challenged Trump’s attempted coup.
However, the incoming vice president, former Senator and California Attorney General, Kamala Harris, is unlikely to play such a background role. The first woman to hold high office in the United States, there is an air of heir around Harris. Joe Biden – as the oldest president ever elected – is expected to serve just one term, with his presidency serving as a warm-up act for a historic run by Harris in 2024.
Throughout the inauguration, there was an inescapable feeling that the day was less Biden’s than it was Harris’. Her status as a history maker and striking purple coat – a nod to the women’s suffrage movement – was a stark contrast to the plain suit and feeling of normality that surrounded Biden. The excitement for the future of America was not that a 78-year-old white man could be president, but that a woman of colour could, for the first time, enter high office.
The feeling around Kamala Harris does not just extend to the inauguration and the glass ceiling-smashing moment that her oath of office represented. There is a clear feeling that she will be an active vice president and one that is not just prepared to take over the presidency in a heartbeat, but one who will build her own record to run on in 2024.
Kamala Harris’ vocal support for Black Lives Matter and for a number of other social issues, as well as her prominence on the campaign trail – contrasted to that of either Mike Pence or Clinton’s 2016 running mate, Tim Kaine – makes it clear that she will not hold the “most insignificant office” ever conceived. She will be active and at the forefront of everything the new administration does. More a co-president in the Dick Cheyney and Al Gore mould, or even in the image of Joe Biden himself.
Biden, Gore and Cheyney represented the expansive potential of the office. All had their own legislative and policy agendas that they strove for during their office. Joe Biden himself was monumental in the passage of the 2009 fiscal stimulus bill, whilst he was often the face that America projected to the world at international conferences when Barack Obama was tackling the domestic issues caused by the financial crisis.
A power broker in the Iran nuclear deal, as well as a major architect of the Paris Climate Accords, Biden was given a long leash by Barack Obama. The emphasis on placing Harris at the front and centre of the campaign makes clear that Biden may be prepared to give her an even longer one.
There is an expectation – whether founded or not – that she will be sitting in on every decision made by the new president. There is an expectation that she will always be the last one in the room, as Cheyney was from 2001-2009, and will exert significant influence over the direction of the new administration.
What her policy priorities will be are yet to be seen. It appears likely that she will pursue her own agenda parallel to that of the new president. In recent interviews, she has noted the importance of racial justice and it is perhaps likely that she will seek to pass significant legislation on that front. In a similar vein to Biden’s focus on international policy under the Obama presidency, Kamala Harris might focus in on domestic transformation and longer-term reform – climate change and racial justice – whilst Biden keeps his immediate focus on overturning the damage of the Trump era and arresting the dual public health and economic crises that afflict the world at current.
Whatever role that Vice President Harris plays in the new administration, it is clear that she will not be insignificant. Already the frontrunner for 2024, she will perhaps be the most consequential vice president in modern history, transforming the scope of the office she now holds and proving the power and significance of the vice presidency.