Why VP Kamala Harris’ approval rating is so low, what it could mean for reelection

Written by Amy Ta, produced by Michell Eloy and Brian Hardzinski

U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris stops to talk to reporters after shopping for pots at E. Dehillerin Cookware Shop in Paris, France November 13, 2021. Photo by Sarahbeth Maney/Pool via REUTERS.

Just 28% of voters approve of the job Vice President Kamala Harris is doing, according to a recent poll from USA Today and Suffolk University. In comparison, President Biden’s approval rating is now 41%, and former Vice President Dick Cheney’s was 13% when he left office in 2009. 

Also, “exasperation and dysfunction” is how President Biden’s team views Vice President Kamala Harris’ team, reports CNN, and the feelings are apparently mutual. Over the summer, Politico quoted a source who described Harris’ office as “not a healthy environment” and rife with dissent.

“Vice presidential ratings tend to follow presidents’ approval ratings. And so I think the fact that President Biden’s ratings have gone down has also been a drag on the vice president’s. By the same token, hers are running lower than his, and among some core democratic groups, significantly so,” says Joel Goldstein, professor of constitutional law emeritus at Saint Louis University and scholar of the American vice presidency.

He notes that the country is so polarized that the ceiling for these ratings is lower than in the past. “The two Bush presidents had ratings that were in the 80s or even 90s. … It’s hard to see that happening, given the fact that a  significant number of Republican voters don't even think that President Biden and Vice President Harris won the election, notwithstanding all the evidence that they clearly did.”

When it comes to Republicans’ ads and messaging, how much of it is meant to damage Harris’ future political career? 

“Ever since Biden designated then Senator Harris as his running mate, the Republicans and their co-partisans and supporters in the media have really been attacking her. … I think race and gender is part of it, but not the whole part of it,” says Goldstein. “And I think the other — because the vice president is less visible … [and] has fewer opportunities to have accomplishments and to be perceived as a leader, it's more difficult to have robust ratings.”

However, he says Harris did well last week when she went to Paris and had the chance to perform as a world leader. 

That’s in contrast to when she was in Latin America in spring and said, “I want to be clear to folks in this region who are thinking about making that dangerous trek to the United States-Mexico border: Do not come. Do not come. The United States will continue to enforce our laws and secure our border.”

Goldstein says those remarks hurt her, plus when she told NBC News host Lester Holt in June that she hadn’t been to the U.S.-Mexico border or Europe. “Those two moments and any sort of perceived gaffe tends to take on disproportionate influence because it's something that can be replayed again and again and again. And it's hard to escape.”

He says in modern times, the vice president plays a consequential role in two ways: by confidentially advising the president in all matters, and by taking important operational assignments from the president.

“Increasingly I would expect her to take on the role that she has been in recent weeks — of trying to make the case that the infrastructure legislation that the president signed, and the climate change and some of the other policies … are the right courses, and with that, to try and raise the popularity of the president and her at the same time.”

What happens if reelection campaign season comes, and both Biden and Harris remain unpopular?

Goldstein says it’s not unheard of for administrations to be unpopular early on. For example, Ronald Reagan had low approval ratings during his first term, then was reelected by a landslide in 1984. Barack Obama and Bill Clinton both struggled during their midterm elections in 2010 and 1994, respectively, but were both reelected. 

“I think the vice presidency … is a great presidential springboard. It elevates somebody into the ranks of leading contenders. But it doesn't guarantee that somebody is going to be the nominee, it doesn't guarantee that you're going to have a clear field. It certainly gives you a leg up,” he says. “But if your administration is not popular, if you're perceived [as] not doing a good job, it doesn't mean that you're going to get across the finish line and get the nomination in any event.”

He adds that 2024 is far away, and a lot can change between now and then.

Credits

Guest:

  • Joel Goldstein - emeritus constitutional law professor at Saint Louis University and scholar of the American vice presidency