Inside Kamala Harris' historic first days

In the hours after her...

Posted: Jan 24, 2021 10:21 AM
Updated: Jan 24, 2021 1:00 PM

In the hours after her historic inauguration, Kamala Harris beamed into televisions across the country, delivering her first speech as vice president just steps beyond the sitting relic of Abraham Lincoln and a short distance from where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. shared his iconic words that inspired generations.

'Even in dark times, we not only dream, we do. We not only see what has been, we see what can be,' she said. 'This is American aspiration.'

It was a notable move for a vice president to command so much of the spotlight alongside the new president on Inauguration Day.

The decision to provide that visibility was a nod to her historic role as the nation's first female, Black and South Asian vice president, a source familiar with planning said. It sought to harness Harris' skyrocketing popularity, show progress and project her significance as President Joe Biden's diligent lieutenant.

It's an example of the outsized role Harris is likely to have as Biden's governing partner and marks a contrast to the approach taken by President Donald Trump, who demanded the spotlight and relegated his own vice president to cleaning up his messes.

Harris has been strategically visible as Biden's right-hand woman so far -- at his side as he signed executive order after executive order in the State Room and received private briefings on Covid-19 and the economy. She sat alongside Biden in the Oval Office as they received the President's Daily Brief, which was an occasional event for their immediate predecessors but a frequent occurrence when Biden served with President Barack Obama.

The President and his No. 2 lunched together Friday, with Biden writing on Facebook, 'a new Administration means a new lunch partner.' It's a tradition the White House says will continue and one Biden deeply valued in his years at Obama's side.

Developing that relationship will be key as the pair forge their governing path for the next four years. While Biden spent more than four decades in the halls of Congress and the White House, Harris -- who served in the Senate for four years -- is a relative newcomer to the power corridors of Washington.

Those close to the history-making vice president say she's navigating that new reality, familiarizing herself with the rhythm of the West Wing and executive government but eager to help solve the country's multiple crises.

'She was not joking when she said, 'It's time to get to work,' ' one White House official told CNN.

Breaking the mold

In her first full day at the White House Thursday, Harris sat in her office mid-morning to read the letter left behind by Vice President Mike Pence. Aides declined to detail the contents of the letter, calling it private. But Harris and her predecessor have enjoyed a slightly more cordial, though still delayed, relationship than Biden and Trump have.

Harris and Pence spoke by phone the week before the inauguration and again at the steps of the Capitol on Wednesday after the peaceful transfer of power. The two have left open the possibility of speaking in the future, an administration official said, similar to the conversations Biden had with Pence when Pence first took over the role of vice president.

But those close to Harris say she'll lean on Biden himself as a blueprint for how to do the job.

'This is not hard for President Biden to do because he's lived it himself and he knows the value of it. He knows that he brought value to President Obama in multiple ways and he's going to want that out of Vice President Harris,' said Jay Carney, who once served as Biden's vice presidential communications director.

So far, Harris has spent most of her time working out of her office in the West Wing. While Biden's Oval Office is completely decorated, officials say Harris' is still a work in progress, missing sentimental relics and busts but outfitted by a deep navy blue wall and a handful of framed photos of her mother, husband, sister, niece and one of her and Biden.

The former prosecutor will be adjusting to this new work life, as her own is in a type of upheaval. Instead of moving into the official vice president's residence at the Naval Observatory, Harris and her husband Doug Emhoff temporarily moved into Blair House on Thursday night, just across the street from the White House. It's a shorter commute, but one official cited increased security as the main benefit -- an upgrade from the hard-to-fortify mega-unit condo building Harris occupied in DC.

Among the updates to the vice presidential home at the Naval Observatory are a replacement chimney liner and other household maintenance that would be 'more easily conducted with the home unoccupied,' according to White House officials.

A White House official said it is the Navy that manages the decades-old property and ordered the maintenance.

Other possible updates could eventually include the kitchen, one source said. A self-proclaimed cooking aficionado, Harris shared recipes and cooking videos during the campaign. The new vice president has said she looks forward to returning to hosting Sunday night dinner with her family in an effort to create some normalcy.

Defining role

Officials and those closest to Harris contend that her portfolio and how she will define herself over time are directly linked to the pandemic and economic crises the Biden administration faces in his first term. At least initially, she'll have no specific portfolio as the duo works out which issues she should prioritize. It's an early arrangement that allows her to have a hand in everything from the start.

'She's focused on how her office can support and amplify the administration's agenda,' said Symone Sanders, a senior adviser and top spokesperson for Harris.

Harris has undertaken some solo ventures as well, including outreach to allies both foreign and domestic. On Friday, she spoke at an SEIU executive board meeting, according to a source, a private call left off her official daily guidance schedule. The day before, she spoke with the World Health Organization's Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, a call that confirmed she's eager to beef up her foreign policy experience.

In the days before Biden introduced his massive $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package, Harris was deployed to call mayors across the country to preview the legislation.

'Right now, the President has laid out four big challenges which requires everyone bringing their best thinking to the table and she is committed to being the best partner she can for this President,' Minyon Moore, the political operative veteran who managed Harris' transition, told CNN in an interview.

As the new White House navigates the complexities of Covid-19, Harris is not expected to make foreign travel within the first six months of the new administration, an official said, but domestic travel could come sooner.

Harris could also become a frequent face back on Capitol Hill, as she holds the title of Senate tie-breaker to the tenuous 50-50 majority Democrats. She's been vocal that she hopes to not cast any votes, instead aiming for 'common ground' on legislation through bipartisanship.

'The goal is to not have to pass everything with 51 votes,' a source added. 'If they're going to be votes in the Senate where the outcome isn't known ... She basically has to stay in DC. International trips, national trips to small businesses or wherever -- that can't really be happening, which is a new dynamic they're going to have to deal with.'

Another source spoke about it in more personal terms.

'It doesn't help her make friends long term, you know. If she's thinking about (running in) 2024 or 2028, she's got to think about what senators she's going to need,' the source said.

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