‘Historically she is more important than Joe’
Will Kamala Harris become president? She is set to be the first female vice-president and first black person in the post. And at 56, she is number two to a man who is 78 in just eleven days.
Resplendent in white, she addressed an ecstatic crowd on Saturday night.
“You chose hope and unity, decency, science, and yes, truth! You chose Joe Biden as the next president of the United States of America! And Joe is a healer, a uniter, a tested and steady hand. A person whose own experience of loss gives him a sense of purpose that will help us as a nation reclaim our own sense of purpose.”
But, as many swiftly pointed out, they had also chosen her.
The prospect of Kamala Harris stepping into Joe Biden’s shoes before his four-year term is up, was one of the key issues of this fiercely contested election. He always described himself as a “bridge” president who would only serve a single term in the Oval Office, placing Harris in pole position to succeed him.
People were “unconsciously, subconsciously or consciously voting with the assumption that Kamala Harris is going to step into the presidency at some point in the next four years, and most certainly is going to be the Democratic nominee in 2024,” the political author Sally Bedell Smith said before the election.
This is the first election where the election of the vice-president is “historically more significant than the election of the president,” said Joel Goldstein, a professor at Saint Louis University in Missouri.
But who is this energetic, ambitious Californian? What does she really believe? And how much power will she wield?
A trailblazer, certainly. Harris was the first black attorney general of California, the first woman to hold the post, and the first woman of South Asian heritage to be elected to the US Senate.
It is the culmination of a remarkable personal story that began over a century ago in a small village in India. There, her grandfather, PV Gopalan, rose from obscurity to become a distinguished civil servant.
In a socially conservative society, Gopalan was open-minded. When his daughter Shyamala applied to study at university he said, “If you get admission, you go.”
In the US, Shyamala met Donald Harris, a Jamaican-born Economics student, and in 1964, Kamala was born. She was one of the first children to be affected by forced bussing – and she grew up in the political heat of the civil rights movement.
She called her grandfather “one of the favourite people in my world”. When he wasn’t teaching her poker, he was writing her letters. His belief in gradual reform shaped her political convictions. “I’m going to try and go inside the system”, she said, “where I don’t have to ask permission to change what needs to be changed”.
“My mother understood very well that she was raising two black daughters”, Harris wrote in her autobiography The Truths We Hold. “She knew that her adopted homeland would see Maya and me as black girls, and she was determined to make sure we would grow into confident, proud black women.”
At her victory speech on Saturday night, Harris drove home the message. “Every little girl watching tonight sees that this is a country of possibilities and to the children of our country regardless of your gender, our country has sent you a clear message: dream with ambition, lead with conviction and see yourselves in a way that others may not simply because they've never seen it before.”
So, how might she end up in the White House? As Biden’s vice president, she will automatically take over if he falls ill, dies in office, or is impeached. But if he serves a full term Harris is now the clear frontrunner to replace him as the Democrat candidate in 2024.
However, she would first have to win a presidential election. And in a foretaste of what might be in store for her, Donald Trump recently called her “nasty”, a “phoney” and a “madwoman”.
So, will Kamala Harris become US president?
Yes. Barack Obama’s election in 2008 showed that Americans were prepared to vote an African American into the White House. The momentum behind the Black Lives Matter movement has accelerated the desire for change. The tide of history is behind her.
No. Obama faced racist abuse and Hilary Clinton faced intense sexism. Harris will have to contend with both. She must now survive four years of vicious political scrutiny from more than 70 million people who voted for Trump last week.
- Is Kamala Harris a more important story than Joe Biden?
- Is Kamala Harris right that real change comes from within the system?
- Write down the three most important world improvements you would like to see in the next four years.
- Write a letter to a friend or relative telling them how you plan to change the world. Use concrete examples.
Some People Say...
“Every office I’ve run for, I was the first to win. First person of colour. First woman. First woman of colour. Every time.”Kamala Harris
What do you think?
Q & A
- What do we know?
- It is generally agreed that Kamala Harris has a more progressive agenda than Joe Biden. For example, she supports policies such as free healthcare for all and legalising marijuana, that Biden has not endorsed.
- What do we not know?
- Whether Biden will move to accommodate her. “It’ll be interesting to see what kind of tug-of-war happens. Biden is, by instinct, a more moderate person and Harris will be surrounded by people for whom that is uncomfortable”, one expert said.
- Experience of loss
- Joe Biden lost his first wife and daughter in a car crash in 1972. His young sons Beau and Hunter were badly injured but survived. Beau Biden died of brain cancer in 2015, aged 46.
- Oval Office
- The working office space of the US President, in the West Wing of the White House.
- Socially conservative society
- As strict Hindus, Harris’s grandparents’ marriage was arranged by their parents. Women were not traditionally expected to study or work so, by studying in the US and marrying for love, Kamala’s mother broke many social conventions.
- In order to create more mixed schools, some areas transported students from poor black neighbourhoods to predominantly white schools. In debates last year, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris clashed over Biden’s past opposition to bussing.
- The Truths We Hold
- The Truths We Hold: An American Journey is a memoir by Kamala Harris, first published by Penguin Books on January 8, 2019. A young readers’ edition was published by Philomel Books on May 7, 2019.
- It means “charged with misconduct”. Three presidents (Andrew Johnson, Bill Clinton and Donald Trump) have been impeached but In all three cases, the US Senate voted not to remove them.