Official White House Photos. Carlos Vazquez, Adam Schultz, Lawrence Jackson
The political press’s fixation on President Biden’s age has less to do with their concern about his abilities as a leader and everything to do with their fear of a Kamala Harris presidency.
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No one in the political press or the public at large is actually worried about Joe Biden’s age, never mind the media’s obsessive attention to it. Though he is about to make his 81st turn around the sun, Biden is still performing one of the most stressful jobs in the world with vim and vigor, his mind and approach as sharp as ever, while racking up ageless accomplishments. The open trepidation over the accumulated years of Joseph Robinette Biden Jr. isn’t about his performance as President of the United States; it’s about the anxiety over his chosen successor.
Eight vice presidents have taken over for leaders who have died in office, and reading between the lines of the actuarial tables, Vice-President Kamala Harris has even odds to become the ninth. It’s a mixed bag of company, featuring some of the biggest failures and greatest successes to ever occupy the Oval Office. But more telling than the range of results are the attributes they had in common—all had significant time in public service, were familiar with the party machinery, had been selected for electoral value, and were unlikely to be directly elected to the office themselves. Oh, and they were all white men.
This demographic divergence is the beginning and end of the consternation around Harris’s possible succession to the presidency, because she meets or exceeds every other qualification on their collective resumes. Among the most famous successes, she has more government and elected experience than Teddy Roosevelt, more education and accomplishment than Harry Truman, and broader popular support than Lyndon Johnson. And she had to do it all as a Black and South Asian-American woman—backwards and upside-down in heels. For all the implied worry that she’s not up to the task, VP Kamala Harris is already one of the most talented among those who have been called by circumstance to fulfill their constitutional role. She’s just the least likely to be recognized for it.
The places where VP Harris has shined—successful rounds of international travel, essential tie-breaking votes in a delicately balanced Senate, inspiring engagement with base voters around the issues that matter to them most (voting rights, reproductive rights, equity and inequality)—are minimized and diminished both by the nature of the vice presidency and her unprecedented presence in it. The world is already primed to think less of women’s accomplishments, to diminish the work of non-white people, to make our labor invisible just so it’s easier to erase the extra struggle to achieve it. Added to the disregard for a role with no actual parameters besides age and a heartbeat, it’s almost more impressive that Harris has been noticed at all. Instead of receiving the complete absence of attention given to most of her predecessors in the role, Harris has been seen only for what she isn’t, rather than receive credit for who she is.
“Those were different people in a different time,” will come the defensive rejoinder from people who call themselves open-minded. And indeed, they’ll be correct that it has been more than a half-century since a president has been replaced due to death or disability; but they will be wrong that it has been equally long since we’ve been asked to consider it.
Setting aside both the attempted assassination and the possible cognitive decline of President Ronald Reagan, we very openly and very obviously had this discussion with the nomination of Sen. John McCain. As an elder statesman with a unique and non-transferrable political cache, a history of cancer survival, and a then-unprecedented advanced age, McCain’s choice for his successor in the event of a health emergency was heavily scrutinized, even before he made a decision. His pick would be a window into his judgment: How he would approach the problems of the country, what kinds of contingencies and preparations he would make to solve them, and who he—and by extension, we—would trust to carry them out with all the care and faith due to the American people.
And he picked Sarah Palin.
To even begin to go into how wildly unprepared and unqualified she was for the role would be an insult to both Biden and Harris, so I won’t make a comparison. Instead, I will point out that many of the same worries and constraints that weighed down McCain’s candidacy were as true of Biden in 2020—made even more urgent by the COVID-19 pandemic and placed under a harsher spotlight by an unhinged opposition. Biden made his decision as a responsibility to the country and the party, recognizing that the best result for the latter would be to pick someone who could capably and faithfully serve the former. He was a vice president himself, after all.
When Kamala Harris was named to the role, I wasn’t excited for her. It’s a miserable slot, where her talents and capabilities are the least likely to be used. Technically, the vice-presidency of the United States has no power. Besides the obvious, the Constitution only mentions the office to give it (mostly) ceremonial powers: presiding over the Senate, casting a tie-breaking vote in the chamber as circumstances allow, and counting up votes from the Electoral College (ahem). For those VPs who have never held (or run for) the top spot, the most likely legacy is as an answer in a political trivia game. The role has charmingly been described as worth less than a “warm bucket of piss,” and the only real requirements for the gig are to be over the age of 35 and also breathing. The truth is, the vice-presidency is the most useless office in the entire federal government—until it isn’t.
That is the worry that is consuming our political discourse under the guise of (im)polite concern over how old President Joe Biden is. There is no telling what it would mean for the country to experience that kind of shift, to lose a president and accept a new one under the most tragic and terrible conditions. People want to know that there will be continuity, that there will be success, that we can place our trust in the successor as much as the person who preceded them. Because of how unprecedented she is, Kamala Harris doesn’t immediately provide that comfort for the people who are watching. But seeing her as vice president, I’ve realized that she doesn’t have to.
The quality of a vice president isn’t just about their résumé or their achievements; it’s about the person that picked them, and their understanding of the costs. I don’t need to believe that Vice-President Kamala Harris will be the right successor to President Joe Biden; he does—and that’s enough.
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