Credit…Sebastian Hidalgo for The New York Times
By Jeffrey Frank
Mr. Frank, a New York writer, is the author of two biographies about presidents and vice presidents, “The Trials of Harry S. Truman” and “Ike and Dick: Portrait of a Strange Political Marriage.”
Just months after being sworn in as president in 1953, Dwight D. Eisenhower gave an unusual task to his vice president, Richard Nixon.
Years earlier, when Eisenhower was the supreme commander of the Allied forces in World War II, he was distressed over the unpreparedness of Vice President Harry Truman upon President Franklin Roosevelt’s sudden death. Now president at 62, a former four-pack-a-day smoker with what would become a serious heart condition, Eisenhower understood the importance of training a vice president for the presidency; Nixon had just six years’ experience as a congressman and senator from California before becoming Eisenhower’s running mate.
The president had no great liking for Nixon, whom he barely knew, but he gave him a lot to do — including dispatching the vice president and his wife, Pat, on what would become a 68-day trip through Asia and the Middle East. In the fall of 1953, the Nixons visited Japan, Korea, the Philippines, Thailand, India, Pakistan, Iran and Libya — the first of many chances for the vice president to establish personal ties with foreign leaders.
It was a deep education in diplomacy and statesmanship that served Nixon well. And the reviews were good; an enthusiastic story in Life magazine said that Nixon had established himself as “a mover and shaker of national and world affairs.”
Vice President Kamala Harris, who was a first-term senator from California before entering the White House, hasn’t been given the sort of immersive experiences or sustained, high-profile tasks that would deepen and broaden her expertise in ways Americans could see and appreciate. In the modern era, of course, a 68-day trip for a vice president would be laughable. But over the past 18 months, her on-the-job training in governing has largely involved intractable issues like migration and voting rights where she has not shown demonstrable growth in leadership and hit-or-miss trips overseas like the troubled foray in Central America a year ago and the more successful delegation to meet with the United Arab Emirates’ new president, leading a team that included Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.
If other presidents have formed substantive partnerships in office with their V.P.s and made efforts to deepen their experience, President Biden and Ms. Harris have been unable to do so or uninterested in bringing about a similar transformation. From the outside, there’s little evidence that the Biden White House feels much of the urgency felt by General Eisenhower to enhance the role and preparedness of the person who might inherit the presidency at any moment.
Mr. Biden’s announcement last week that he tested positive for the coronavirus underscores the clear and present need for the 79-year-old leader, his aides and Ms. Harris to find ways for her to become a true governing partner rather than just a political partner who helped him get elected. This isn’t simply about being fair to Ms. Harris or elevating her as some other vice presidents have been elevated; Americans deserve to know and see that they have a vice president who is trusted by White House and administration officials to take over, should anything happen to the president.
Instead, we have mostly seen the opposite. She is hampered by Mr. Biden’s unpopularity, to be sure, but she has also not become the successful public face on any major issue. Recently she has energetically undertaken a “How Dare They” tour, as a Politico headline described her trips attacking Republicans on abortion rights after the Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade — but this work only underscores the narrowness of her political role. It’s meant to whip up the Democratic base, a basic job of vice presidents. It’s not something that shows she is capable of assuming the presidency or gives Americans reasons to view her as a viable leader for a country in dire need of leadership.
The often shaky history of relationships between presidents and vice presidents — be it Roosevelt and Henry Wallace or, more recently, George H.W. Bush and Dan Quayle — is instructive not just in models for successful governance but also in the critical importance of having a skillful and well-prepared No. 2.
That Ms. Harris has been stuck in a political role is troubling for anyone concerned about the stability and continuity of the executive branch. No American president has celebrated his 80th birthday while in office, as Mr. Biden is set to do on Nov. 20. He is, thankfully, experiencing “very mild symptoms” of Covid, according to his press secretary, but it’s still hard to ignore actuarial reality and the plain fact that he appears frailer than a man or woman of 60 (or, for that matter, his 57-year-old vice president).
Of the 15 vice presidents who became president, eight came to office after the death of a president. (Four of those eight were later elected on their own.) That gives the vice presidency a sober weightiness, even when the presidential candidate and running mate are pictures of middle-aged vitality, like Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale in 1976 or Bill Clinton and Al Gore in 1992.
A penumbra of frailty has shadowed the modern presidency. It clung to Roosevelt by the end of his third term, though, because it was wartime, was rarely discussed publicly. It touched the 70-year-old Ronald Reagan, shot and wounded by a would-be assassin in March 1981, and Eisenhower, in September 1955, when the 64-year-old president suffered a major heart attack. Mortality was often on Eisenhower’s mind. In 1954, as he mulled running for a second term, he referred in his diary to “the greater likelihood that a man of 70 will break down under a load than a man of 50,” and above all, the “growing severity and complexity of problems that rest upon the president for solution.”
Ms. Harris is not to blame for her relative paucity of national and international experience. She had been in the Senate less than four years when Mr. Biden selected her, and he did so knowing that she had never served in an executive role. But since he tapped her as his running mate in August 2020, we’ve learned that her bonds with him and key administration officials are relatively thin. It’s no small matter that she’s had only a handful of private lunches this year with Mr. Biden. And after her first lunch with Mr. Blinken, in February 2021, she reportedly expected their lunches to continue, as they had for then-Vice President Biden with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Such interaction had been customary; for instance, in the late 1950s, Vice President Nixon formed an almost filial relationship with Secretary of State John Foster Dulles. Regular Harris-Blinken lunches, though, didn’t happen (although the two have met, have talked by phone and have had what one State Department official called “regular engagements” and “regular interaction”).
A deeply reported new book by two Times reporters, Jonathan Martin and Alexander Burns, “This Will Not Pass: Trump, Biden, and the Battle for America’s Future,” paints an authoritative portrait of the Biden-Harris relationship — or absence of one. It describes how Mr. Biden’s advisers were willing to overlook Ms. Harris’s weaknesses in favor of Mr. Biden’s immediate political interests and saw that her chief value came from helping to win the 2020 election. She was a historic choice, becoming the first woman, the first African American and the first South Asian American to serve as vice president. As for presidential readiness, Mr. Biden was more focused on putting together a multiracial coalition, to reflect the nation’s diversity in his administration.
Ms. Harris has been a regular target of negative stories — about staff disarray and departures or her annoyance that White House staff members didn’t stand when she entered a room or even her discomfort in some media interviews. She has also faced double standards in how she is seen and judged, as many women and people of color are, including when they are firsts in jobs.
But she’s also not the first vice president to be sniped at and frustrated by a job whose constitutional duties are to preside over the Senate and count electoral votes. Lyndon Johnson, once the powerful, bullying Senate majority leader, felt like an outsider when he was John F. Kennedy’s vice president. Mr. Biden himself, for all his vaunted closeness to President Barack Obama, resisted what he felt were attempts by the White House to control him during the eight years he served as vice president. But Mr. Johnson and Mr. Biden were Washington veterans; so, for that matter, was Mr. Bush, Mr. Reagan’s vice president. Ms. Harris was a newbie when it came to foreign policy and Washington infighting.
Today, not only are Mr. Biden’s age and health subjects of discussion — more so after his Covid-19 diagnosis — but so is whether he will run for a second term. Over the past six months, with Mr. Biden’s approval rating dropping sharply, dozens of Democratic strategists and officials have been expressing doubts about his skill as a leader and viability as a candidate; some want Mr. Biden to drop out, the sooner the better. In a time of inflation not seen for decades, mass shootings and a persistent pandemic, many Democrats view the November midterm elections with dread.
That’s also bad news for Ms. Harris, whose poor performance as a presidential candidate in 2019 led her to drop out before the Iowa caucuses. Mr. Biden’s declarations that he will run again seem only to encourage his opponents. Her absence from the executive branch, as a crisis manager and a shaper of policy, leaves her as a fairly weak heir apparent. Democrats, if not other Americans, would benefit if she could bring a compelling and varied set of experiences and ideas from her time in the White House to a competitive Democratic presidential primary race, giving more solid choices to voters and adding substantively to the debate.
The 2024 presidential campaign, in any case, is likely to be unusually ugly, fought over familiar contentious issues and with many Republicans willing to repeat, without shame or embarrassment, Donald Trump’s lies about the validity of the 2020 election, thus challenging the legitimacy of American democracy. With the government itself under siege from a new class of enemies within and with more than two years to go until the next presidential election, Mr. Biden must not only find a way to infuse his party with enthusiasm and fresh purpose but also fulfill an urgent obligation — to his party and the nation — to hasten and advance the education and authority of his vice president.