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Potential 2024 rivals Harris and Buttigieg ally to sell Biden agenda

Vice President Harris and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg tour electric vehicle operations at a Charlotte Area Transit System bus garage on Thursday. The two were in North Carolina to promote the new infrastructure law.
Logan Cyrus
AFP via Getty Images
Vice President Harris and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg tour electric vehicle operations at a Charlotte Area Transit System bus garage on Thursday. The two were in North Carolina to promote the new infrastructure law.

After months of infighting and public negotiation over their far-reaching legislation, Democrats are relying, in part, on the Biden administration's sales job over the coming months to try and salvage their shaky congressional majorities.

Two of the administration's top spokespeople, Vice President Harris and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, were making that effort together Thursday in Charlotte, N.C., where they promoted the recently enacted infrastructure law.

"For millions of Americans, public transportation is part of their day, every day," Harris said at a light rail maintenance facility, noting the connection between good public transit systems and access to jobs for low-income workers. "And a bus stop within walking distance can make all of the difference versus a bus stop you have to walk for half an hour to get to."

Beyond the short-term political consequences of how Harris and Buttigieg make the case, both are also being looked to as the potential future of the Democratic Party. With President Biden approaching 80, the political spotlight has been trained more brightly than usual on the pair.

That's been especially true of the vice president, who has faced harsh criticism after a series of missteps in interviews and public appearances. She's been a lightning rod for the right, and her approval and favorability ratings have suffered.

The problems were underscored this week with the news that Symone Sanders, a top Harris communications aide, will be leaving at the end of the year. That follows the exit of another communications staffer and the White House bringing in others to help.

Defenders say the criticism has been unfair, that Harris has gotten a portfolio stacked with controversial issues, and that the first vice president to be a woman of color has faced a hotter spotlight than has traditionally been the case.

"When Joe Biden was vice president, people didn't think he was going to run for president, so he didn't have nearly the same kind of scrutiny," said Karen Finney, a Democratic strategist and veteran of multiple campaigns. "We have to acknowledge that she's being judged differently and reported on differently."

Buttigieg chatter rises

As a result, some have started to look to Buttigieg as someone who could carry the party mantle forward. He makes the argument for Democrats in a disciplined way; he ran a competent 2020 presidential primary campaign, performing well in Iowa (Harris dropped out before the caucuses); and polls have shown that he is better liked.

But Buttigieg, who is openly gay, has his downsides as well. At 39, he has far less experience in public office than Harris, who was not only a U.S. senator but also California's attorney general before that. Buttigieg's top job before running the Transportation Department was as mayor of small South Bend, Ind.

Buttigieg speaks at the Thursday event in Charlotte.
Logan Cyrus / AFP via Getty Images
AFP via Getty Images
Buttigieg speaks at the Thursday event in Charlotte.

And while he's had some success on the campaign trail, he was mocked for emulating — perhaps too closely — former President Barack Obama's style, and he struggled mightily with Black and brown voters, including after he faced criticism for his handling of police-involved incidents in South Bend.

Ultimately, his inability to win them over did him in. No one can win the Democratic nomination without making inroads with voters of color.

He will also face a big test in the coming months. As transportation secretary, he will have a role in doling out infrastructure funds.

"He's a very impressive person, no question," Finney said, but "I think this is going to be a big test for him. How quickly and how efficiently the money gets out of the door and into communities is going to be critical. People are going to remember whether or not it got done."

A focus on Harris

As Biden's hand-picked No. 2, Harris is the obvious heir apparent.

"She's ready to do this job on Day One," Biden said of Harris when introducing her as his running mate last year.

But Harris, 57, has shown her vulnerabilities. Messaging missteps plagued her 2020 presidential campaign, and that's continued into the administration.

Harris gives remarks on infrastructure at the Charlotte stop.
Logan Cyrus / AFP via Getty Images
AFP via Getty Images
Harris gives remarks on infrastructure at the Charlotte stop.

Harris' most notable error was her bristly response in an NBC interview in June about whether she would be visiting the southern U.S. border.

"And I haven't been to Europe," Harris said with a laugh. "I mean, I don't understand the point that you're making."

Harris had recently been tasked with addressing the root causes of migration from Central America to the United States.

Weeks later, Harris made that first trip to the border.

Her response also came after the vice president reportedly participated in a media training session to help improve her interviews and speeches.

But in September, Harris was again criticized, this time for not interjecting when a student, during a trip to a Virginia school, accused Israel of engaging in "ethnic genocide." Instead, Harris responded, in part, by saying that the student's "truth cannot be suppressed."

Harris' border remark coincided with a flip in her favorability to more negative than positive. Biden's ratings also slid in that period, starting with the uptick in COVID cases due to the delta variant, as well as a rise in inflation. It would make sense that if Biden's approval dips, his vice president's would, too.

"She has been willing to take on anything the president has asked her to do, and the things she's been asked to do are tough, difficult problems to resolve," Jim Margolis, a Democratic consultant who was a senior adviser on Harris' presidential campaign, said of the thorny portfolio she's been handed. "It doesn't mean you shouldn't put your head down and try to get them done."

A full plate

The list of issues Harris has been tasked with range from immigration to voting rights to even helping repair the U.S. relationship with France after a botched announcement of an alliance with Australia and the U.K. that would cost France billions in submarine sales.

That kind of responsibility comes with the job, Margolis noted. It can be a boon politically if handled well and can hurt political prospects if not.

"If there is success broadly within the administration, it will reflect positively on her," Margolis said, noting that the administration has a positive story to tell and that recent trips promoting the president's agenda are a good start — but more needs to be done.

"It's up to her and Biden to get out more," because, he added, "I don't think voters have any idea at all what the efforts have been."

Buttigieg has mostly evaded that kind of scrutiny so far. But the more he rises, the more he'll become a target of the right.

Finney said Harris isn't getting credit for bringing more diverse interest groups to the table, something she feels is undervalued in traditional Washington power circles.

"She's a groundbreaking, historic figure in a role that was designed for a white man and has kind of its own mold," she said, "and we haven't quite changed our presets for how the role can look differently for her."

To be sure, however, Harris remains popular with the Democratic base and potentially formidable in a party primary.

Team of rivals

For their part, Harris and Buttigieg dismiss any talk of a rivalry.

"I am excited to be part of a team led by the president and the vice president, and I think the teamwork that got us to this point is really just beginning," Buttigieg told reporters ahead of the Charlotte event.

Any drama between them is coming from the outside, people close to them say.

"These are two people who have really liked each other," Margolis said, pointing out that both of their spouses, in particular, get along well.

At the end of the day, sitting vice presidents who run to succeed their bosses are tough to beat. In recent history, for example, Republican George H.W. Bush and Democrat Al Gore were challenged, but won their party's nominations fairly easily.

Biden himself didn't run in 2016 to immediately succeed Obama, but his role as his vice president elevated his profile to a point that helped him win the White House in 2020 despite two prior failed attempts at the nomination.

Of course, any of this depends on whether Biden runs for reelection, something the White House last week said remains his "intention."

But intentions can change. And it's not in Biden's interest to say anything else. If he were to say he's not running, he would immediately become a lame duck with little to no political leverage, imperiling any Democratic agenda.

"For the president and the purposes of his agenda," Finney said, "he shouldn't answer that question until the last minute he has to."

Until then, any speculation about who will lead the party after Biden, whether it's Harris, Buttigieg or anyone else, is just that.

"It's 2021," Buttigieg saidThursday. "And the whole point of campaigns and elections is when they go well, you get to govern. And we are squarely focused on the job at hand."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.
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