For nearly a year we’ve seen little of Kamala Harris. From time to time, she pops up for a painfully defensive interview, to show her face in some international setting, or to deflect rumors of serious discord inside the White House. Other than these brief sightings, like catching a glimpse of Bigfoot, Americans have little to write home about in relation to Harris. Remember, she was assigned the tasks of resolving the border refugee crisis and voting rights issues. Yet little has been seen or heard from Harris on these topics, or any others for that matter.
To make things more challenging for Joe Biden, Harris’ appearances always reignite tense discussions regarding her role, purpose, and efficacy in the administration. Perhaps this is because she comes off as uncaring and unrelatable. Have you seen the NASA video or the one where she affects a bad French accent? Both have been panned for weeks along with many of her other uncomfortable outings as veep. On other occasions, she outright contradicts Biden’s own comments on hot-button issues, such as the Kyle Rittenhouse verdict. Not a good look when you ostensibly represent Biden’s agenda. Even partisan news sources such as CNN have decried Harris and her stint in office as rocky, bumpy, awkward, and dysfunctional.
Whether it’s due to sheer incompetence, unlikability, or some ulterior motive of Biden’s, Harris’ lack of presence, measly accomplishments, and dreadful interactions with a media that is clearly biased in her favor, leaves in its wake a leadership vacuum that Biden can ill afford. Not only is Biden suffering poor poll numbers on his own, but the American public doesn’t like what little they have seen of Harris, who is facing some of the worst poll numbers for a politician in her particular role in recent history.
My purpose here is not to denigrate Harris, but rather to highlight the leadership vacuum that exists within the administration because of her absences and awkward dealings with the press and public, and to identify three key principles that Harris and other political leaders should pursue to strengthen their own leadership. Whether Harris is capable or even willing to take these steps, I leave up to the reader.
First and foremost, Harris needs to be present. As mentioned above, days and sometimes weeks can go by with little to no coverage of Harris. Consider the border crisis and how many times she’s visited the U.S. southern border: once. True leaders are present, accessible, and continuously interact with their team, followers, and constituents.
When you look at the serious issue of the border, this could have been, and still can be, an opportunity for Harris to be present—to see the issues, learn about the problems, and at least put a face to the administration’s efforts there, whatever those may ultimately be. Every day that she and the Biden Administration minimize the crisis is another day of lost credibility and political capital.
Imagine if she runs for president. Her adversaries, both Democrats and Republicans, are going to take her to task on the border crisis because Americans care about what’s going on there. It’s a humanitarian crisis, and has been for nearly a year.
Next, she needs to communicate. This is the life blood of all politicians, the ability to clearly and earnestly communicate with their constituents. In the case of Harris, her constituents consist of all Americans, and she would do well to communicate to all of us, not just fringe progressives.
Her recent, and very brief, monologue with the press regarding the Rittenhouse verdict shows the nature of her failure to communicate. Not only did she apparently contradict Biden’s own comments but then she insinuated that our legal system, and the jury, failed—a direct attack on our social institutions. After revealing her thoughts, she walked away, not willing to discuss the matter further or answer any questions from the press. This clearly shows her desire to avoid difficult conversations.
The key to good communication is authenticity and repetition. When people listen to a speaker, they must believe that what they’re hearing is genuine; otherwise, it will go in one ear and out the other. Additionally, a speaker, especially those involved in politics must repeat, repeat, repeat. Think back to Barack Obama’s continuous campaign to sell healthcare reform in his first term. It was a looped message for months on end, sold and resold to the public in any way possible, and eventually it passed.
Let’s not also forget Donald Trump’s campaign and presidency from 2015 to 2020. Due to blatant media bias, he took his message directly to the people and held countless rallies across the country for four years. In so doing, he was able to communicate authentically (without filter) and repetitiously to get his message out.
Lastly, as the preeminent political scientist James MacGregor Burns explained, effective leaders need to care about the people they lead. This means that their leadership must in some way be altruistic in nature, not merely self-centered. Leaders who are able to care for and lead their teams, followers, and/or constituents build deeper relationships with the people they lead. This results in people who are loyal and dedicated to the leader’s mission and agenda.
But this requires leaders who actually care about the people they are leading, who care about the laws they implement, and the effects those laws have on them. If a politician’s sole purpose of running for office is to gain power, then he or she has already lost. That politician will be subverted by power and authority, and forget that leadership is meant to benefit his or her constituents. Harris has a real leadership problem, and it’s chipping away at her credibility and the efficacy of the Biden Administration and any future political aspirations. The leadership vacuum at Number One Observatory Circle isn’t insurmountable, however. Like all leadership challenges, it requires hard work and dedication to those they lead. Future political leaders would do well to study the impact of Harris’ absence, and hold fast to the key principles of being present, communicating, and caring.