Biden quickly rose to his feet and exploited his political enemies in real time. His performance will deflate questions about his age for months. Maybe weeks. Or, as the existence of this column suggests, maybe for a few minutes. The delay will necessarily be short. Because unlike most MAGA land concerns, Biden’s age is a legitimate concern. He’s had a hugely successful half-term and his White House has performed well. But he is old and getting older; that makes supporters nervous and opponents ambitious.
Biden can’t do much about past or future. But if he’s running for re-election — and there’s no reason to believe he won’t — he should do what he can to minimize the discomfort that eight decades of living causes voters. The best he can do is have a vice president who is seen as poised and capable.
He doesn’t have one yet.
Here are some words from the opening paragraphs of a Feb. 6 New York Times story about Vice President Kamala Harris: “Struggling.” “Frustrated.” “Fall.” Then comes “wrestling” again. The Times story was the latest entry in the “Harris Can’t Cut It” genre, a growing number of reports on her shortcomings on the national stage. One particularly brutal paragraph sums up the theme:
But the painful reality for Ms. Harris is that in private conversations over the past few months, dozens of Democrats in the White House, on Capitol Hill and across the country — including some who helped put her on the party’s 2020 ticket — said that she had not risen to the challenge of proving herself as a future leader of the party, let alone the country. Even some Democrats whom her own advisers turned to reporters for supportive quotes privately confided that they had lost hope in her.
Harris’s bad press is not due to opponent attacks. It is a result of a lack of trust between allies. That’s partly Harris’s fault. The vice presidency may be a shitty job, but history — including Biden’s ascension to president — proves it’s not always a job that can’t be won. Each vice president must determine a downhill trajectory, master gravity and make a political vehicle out of an engineless soapbox derby car.
One person who can make that task easier is the President of the United States. Harris’s main job to date has been to remain in Washington to cast decisive votes in the Senate. It’s as mundane as it is essential – the kind of mechanical job the president might emphasize or ignore. Biden has largely ignored it.
Making Harris the main figure of the administration on the southern border is an even more thankless task. The border will be under pressure – and will continue to be a talking point for demagogues – as long as millions of people view it as a final destination in their flight from misery. You cannot “solve” that problem without a comprehensive solution that only Congress can provide. (Even Congress will need coordinated help from other countries.) Neither Congress nor the countries producing desperate migrants are ready to relieve the stress any time soon. So the perception of a purulent problem will remain.
Harris, 58, is not untalented. She rose through the ranks of the California Democratic Party, hardly a political backwater. She won major nationwide races for Attorney General and U.S. Senate. In the Senate, she ably grilled former Attorney General William Barr among other slippery witnesses. Her 2020 presidential campaign failed to catch on. That doesn’t mean she’s out of the running: None of Biden’s presidential campaigns took off until the one that eventually did.
Biden’s job is to strengthen Harris, elevate her to the next level, and convince first the Democrats, and then the wider electorate, that his vice president is prepared for the top job in case the actuarial tables get it wrong. scramble the political scene. Biden chose Harris primarily because he needed the qualities she brought to the ticket. He still does.
More from Bloomberg’s opinion:
• Biden’s successes were made possible by Obama: David A. Hopkins
• What kind of Republican is Nikki Haley?: Jonathan Bernstein
• Will Biden run again? Democrats need an answer: Jonathan Bernstein
This column does not necessarily reflect the views of the editors or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Francis Wilkinson is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist who reports on American politics and policy. Previously, he was an editor for the Week, a writer for Rolling Stone, communications consultant and political media strategist.
More stories like this are available at bloomberg.com/opinion