“This is someone who has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars—millions, even—for your boss and you’re just blowing them off?” the Harris friend asked. “Next time Kamala wants [them] for something, it’s like, ‘Hey, I couldn’t even get a call-back from your chief of staff!’”
Every vice president has had to balance the demands of being a supportive second-in-command while also keeping an eye on future political opportunities. But Harris’ task is more complicated. It’s not clear whether Biden will run again in 2024—at which point she’d be the logical standard-bearer for the party. She also has felt an acute need to demonstrate her loyalty to Biden after working hard to earn it prior to being nominated as his veep.
For that reason, some outside allies acknowledged that Harris has gone out of her way not to engage in politicking—either subtle or overt—given the sensitivities among Biden’s own team. But far more of the allies maintain that it’s unreasonable, foolish even, not to support efforts to burnish her own profile while seemingly every other Democrat with national ambitions is allowed to hobnob with political acquaintances and cozy up to donors.
“She’s been in public life for 30 years. F—. You don’t just all of a sudden go radio silent,” added another Harris confidant and long-serving former aide. The person rejected the idea that Harris is unaware of the problems in her office.
“She is the most perceptive person on the planet,” the person said. “She might not have first-hand knowledge, but it’s hard to imagine she doesn’t have a sense of what’s going on.”
Harris’ staff struggles are nothing new. People who have worked for her in the past describe days as “managed chaos.” “The boss’ expectations won’t always be predictable,” said one former Harris Senate aide.
Her presidential campaign operation imploded in a painful maze of finger-pointing and leaks. Harris jettisoned nearly everyone from that campaign and returned to the Senate in 2020 with her government staff and a small outside political operation in tow. When she was put on the presidential ticket, she was given a staff of mostly handpicked, trusted aides from Bidenworld. It did the job. The team avoided the spiral of internal backbiting.
The pressure-packed VP’s office has been a different story, and it hasn’t helped that few of her aides had any familiarity with their boss or her chief of staff when they started their jobs.
The morale level for current Harris staffers is “rough” and in many ways similar to the failed presidential campaign and her Senate office, according to the former Senate aide, who is in touch with current Harris staffers.
Part of what has created that climate is the portfolios that Harris has accepted to work on, which include some of the most intractable issues facing the Biden administration. Harris was, early on, tasked with tackling the root causes of the flow of migrants to the southern border. It immediately made her the focus of conservative criticism, including the demand that she personally go to the southern border to assess the situation.
For weeks, Harris’ aides argued that she didn’t have to go there right away to show leadership on the issue. Instead, she flew to the countries where the migrants were originating and traveling through.
The trip to Guatemala and Mexico had its share of bumps. In an interview with NBC News, Harris scoffed at the idea she’d go to the border, by arguing that she hadn’t been to Europe, either. The answer spawned a flurry of stories quoting former staffers about her shortcomings in impromptu moments, which frustrated Harris personally, as well as members of her team.
Weeks later, Harris finally decided to take the trip to El Paso. Her team insisted that it was not in response to her critics. But other aides and confidants said it was evident she was trying to just move past the coverage and, in doing so, may have helped affirm the right-wing misinformation campaign against her.
It didn’t help matters that the border visit seemed hastily put together, symbolized by a news conference Harris held in which she struggled to speak over the engine of a roaring plane.
Harris’ defenders argue that these moments are overblown; that few people beyond the politically obsessive will remember the din of a press conference or whether she went to the border on her own volition or under duress.
“Vice President Harris is focused on the work, not the chatter at the water cooler,” Sanders said.
What’s more concerning for people inside and out of Harris’ orbit is staunching the bleeding among frustrated staff and meaningfully improving the low morale in the office, which could cause damage to her relationship with Biden and his team. Harris, these people said, excels when those around her project calm and order, creating a sense of confidence and certainty.
“When people feed her anxieties, all of that goes away,” said another Harris friend, “exacerbating the bad tendencies.”
Theodoric Meyer contributed to this report.