Kamala Harris in Africa: High stakes for the U.S. and for her | Fletcher McClellan

Belatedly, Africa has become a major area of concern for the Biden administration

April 4, 2023 6:30 am

U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris speaks with community members and students at Clark Atlanta University on June 18, 2021 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Megan Varner/Getty Images)

Vice President Kamala Harris recently concluded a nine-day mission to African nations Ghana, Tanzania, and Zambia. With reminders of the painful legacy of slavery and her own family story punctuating her trip, the vice president proclaimed a bright future for Africa and U.S.-Africa relations.

Belatedly, Africa has become a major area of concern for the Biden administration. China is investing heavily in the continent, and the U.S. is playing catch-up. Harris is the fifth high-ranking U.S. official to tour Africa in the last three months. President Biden is expected to visit later this year.

At each stopover, the vice president announced economic partnerships aimed at promoting entrepreneurship, innovation, and women’s empowerment. Humanitarian assistance, anti-corruption efforts, and cooperation in the war against terrorism were also discussed.

In addition, legislation in African parliaments targeting gay and trans persons for harsh punishment – recently enacted in Uganda and under consideration in Ghana – gave Harris the opportunity to advocate for human rights.

The future of American influence and possibly democracy in Africa may well depend on the outcome of this charm offensive. The stakes are also high for Harris, whose political future is at a crossroads.

Public approval of Harris’s performance as vice president is low. In late 2021, only 28% of Americans polled thought she was doing a good job, a level of support 20 points lower than that for President Biden.

The vice president’s current approval ratings are in the high 30s, not much different than Biden’s popularity, but not much help to the president either.

Harris is not only a political liability, but she is also an outsider in the Biden White House. Aides close to the president speak of difficulties working with Harris and her staff. Six months in, Biden himself described her as a “work in progress.”  

After assigning the vice president responsibility in March 2021 for slowing the flood of immigrants from Central America – a toxic political issue and a daunting task for an official with no formal powers – Biden has searched for ways to put her to best use.

In the meantime, conservative media outlets have conducted a scorched earth campaign, highlighting Harris’s troubles with staff, gaffes at speaking events, and unpopularity. These reports continued during the vice president’s Africa tour.

To Republicans, Harris is the poster child for the ill effects of “diversity hires,” a not-too-subtle appeal to those who resent the idea of a Black-South Asian woman, married to a Jewish man, being a heartbeat away from the Oval Office.

It is likely that Harris’s presence on the Democratic ticket in 2024 will be a big campaign issue for the GOP. Given the president’s advanced age, Republicans will say that a vote for Biden is really a vote for a President Harris, a lightweight who is not up to the job.

Unfortunately for Harris, Republican criticism is the least of her problems.

Democratic leaders have been slow to come to Harris’s defense. For some, she is not progressive enough. Recently U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., endorsed Biden for re-election but refused to comment on a second term for Harris.

Presidential aspirants in the party, such as Warren, may not be anxious to praise the vice president, who could lead the ticket in 2028 and beyond. 

Memories of Harris’s disappointing 2020 presidential campaign are not reassuring.

Still others may see themselves as Biden’s running mate, should he choose to go in another direction, as FDR did twice and Gerald Ford did once

And then there is the vice president’s job.

Having no formal constitutional duties except to preside over the U.S. Senate and break tie votes (which Harris did 29 times in 2021-22, second in U.S. history only to John C. Calhoun), the vice president serves totally at the pleasure of the president.

That is, a vice president cannot “rise to the occasion” unless the president gives her the occasion.

You would think that Biden, who as vice president was given a large portfolio by Barack Obama, would know how to support Harris.

Or maybe not, since Biden had 35 years of Washington experience prior to becoming vice president and Harris only had four.

In any case, Biden has no choice but to rehabilitate his vice president. Jettisoning a historic figure to women and people of color would be political suicide.

Even prior to her Africa mission, Harris appeared to find her footing. Since the U.S. Supreme Court decision last summer to overturn Roe v Wade, the vice president has been a forceful advocate for reproductive freedom and health

At the prestigious Munich Security Conference in February, Harris accused Russia of committing “crimes against humanity” in Ukraine. One month later, the International Criminal Court alleged Russian President Vladimir Putin was a war criminal.

A strong performance in Africa, where Harris has been warmly received, will do much to dampen critics of Harris’s competence, build her credentials as global leader, and rally Democrats to her side. 

Most importantly, it will impress the boss.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Fletcher McClellan
Fletcher McClellan

Opinion contributor Fletcher McClellan is a political science professor at Elizabethtown College in Elizabethtown, Pa. His work appears biweekly on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page. Readers may email him at [email protected], and follow him on Twitter at @mcclelef.