Opinion: It’s time for Kamala Harris to shine

Editor’s Note: Julian Zelizer, a CNN political analyst, is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author and editor of 25 books, including The New York Times bestseller “Myth America: Historians Take on the Biggest Legends and Lies About Our Past” (Basic Books). The views expressed in this commentary are his own. Read more opinion on CNN.

Vice President Kamala Harris visited a Planned Parenthood clinic in Minnesota Thursday, marking the first time that a US president or vice president has publicly visited an abortion provider.

After Democrats spent years trying to sidestep this issue for fear of alienating Catholic voters, the Biden administration is now a staunch defender of reproductive rights following the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision in 2022, which overturned Roe v. Wade and the right to abortion nationwide. The stop in Minnesota marks part of the vice president’s “Fight for Reproductive Freedoms” tour.

The event marks a turning point in the relationship between President Joe Biden and his vice president. Until recently, Biden has not done much to bolster his controversial partner. He saddled her with some of the thorniest issues that the administration faced (such as immigration), and many members of Harris’ inner circle claimed she had been sidelined by the president. Meanwhile, Republicans, along with much of the press, pilloried her for making public statements likened to “word salad,” and seized on the dysfunction among her staff. Last year, NBC found 49% of voters had a negative view of Harris, compared to a 32% who had a positive view of her. The net-negative 17 rating was the lowest for a vice president in the history of the poll.

Now, as the election heats up, Biden seems to see that Harris could be pivotal to his reelection campaign. Although vice presidents have not typically determined the outcome of elections, in this particular case Harris’ performance in the coming months will be essential.

That, of course, is due to ongoing concerns about Biden’s age (at 81, he’s the oldest president ever) and whether he will be able to govern effectively for a second term — an issue that has been consistently registering in the polls. There is every reason to believe the election will be extraordinarily close, coming down to slivers of the electorate in just a handful of swing states. The more that Harris can start to shine — and the more she can convince the public that she has what it takes to be a national leader — the better the odds will be that Democrats may enjoy another four years of power in the White House.

At a time when support for Biden is shaky among some key constituencies, including young and Black voters, the vice president will be on the campaign trail trying to connect with these voters. She has also been spending time behind the scenes, trying to break out of Biden’s campaign bubble to find out what problems need to be addressed, and how to get Democrats excited about backing the president again.

Stopping in Minnesota is one pillar of this strategy. Few issues have been more energizing to suburban women than the Dobbs decision, which has led to a draconian rollback of reproductive services in many red states. If anyone thought that there were limits to how far states would go, the Alabama Supreme Court’s decision undermining in vitro fertilization (IVF) has been another wakeup call. (Following swift backlash, the state legislature then passed a law aiming to provide criminal immunity to providers and patients for the destruction of or damage to embryos.)

Harris has taken to the stump to speak directly about a number of other contentious issues, including the Israel-Hamas War and voting rights with a level of fervor and directness that doesn’t always come naturally to the president. Her voice will be especially important given that the Biden reelection team seems to want to preserve the preisdent’s energy and focus on the most important events.

Harris will also be important in taking on the more traditional role of a battering ram against the opposition. Historically, presidents running for reelection have counted on the vice president to go after the other ticket. Because they are not at the center of the contest, there is more room for VPs to fully embrace the hardball partisan tactics necessary to win without feeling the countervailing pressure of appearing dignified and civil. (Donald Trump, of course, had no problem doing the attacking himself when he ran for president in 2016 and 2020).

In 1952 and 1956, Richard Nixon was probably the most famous of them all, eviscerating Democratic candidate Adlai Stevenson on the campaign trail to support the military hero Dwight Eisenhower, who tried to stand above the fray. In 2012, then-Vice President Biden jumped into the role with fervor despite his natural inclination toward restraint. He boasted about his working-class identity as a way to eviscerate Republican nominee Mitt Romney as an out-of-touch elitist whose policies would be devastating to average families. Harris, a former prosecutor, famously demonstrated her capacity to wield the political knife during the 2020 primary debate when she took down Biden for his positions on school busing during the 1970s. When she is at the top of her game, it’s clear that Harris can be effective on this front.

It is also vital that Harris showcases her capacity to govern. For various reasons, ranging from her race and gender to the conservative media machine, Harris has been painted as a “bad” vice president who could never lead the country herself. But others who have worked with her have a very different perspective; Harris is widely considered to be a highly intelligent politician with the ability to grasp and analyze complex public policy conundrums. She has been extremely important in tackling a number of key public issues, such as abortion. And for all the bad press she has gotten on immigration, she has led the Central America Forward project, which has raised over $4 billion in private sector commitments to help create economic opportunities to address one of the root causes of migration. She has also worked on the issue of voting rights and become more involved in foreign policy, as was evident in her recent meeting with Israel’s Benny Gantz, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s major rival for power.

For Biden to win, he needs a strong vice president by his side. This is no ordinary election and the stakes will be enormously consequential, not just for the direction of public policy but for the health of our democracy. While the polls are unlikely to move much with two presidential candidates who have been in the public eye for decades, there might be more room to start bolstering the vice president’s standing given that she remains something of a mystery to most of the electorate.

Biden has sometimes made the mistake of treating Harris like any other vice president — someone to be contained and kept off center stage. But the president can’t afford to do that for various reasons: his age, the closeness of the election and the inevitable all-out assault from Trump, who doesn’t believe that there are any limitations when it comes to political warfare.

Today, in a high-profile mission, the vice president had the opportunity to start showing the Democratic Party what she can bring to the table to help them win in November.

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