Vice President Kamala Harris flew to California on Friday to take an aerial tour of the damage caused by a historically bad wildfire season and announce $1.3 billion in disaster relief funding for the U.S. Forest Service.
The money comes from the bipartisan infrastructure structure law, giving her a chance to trumpet one of the administration’s big successes.
But it may also offer an insight into how Harris plans to battle back from dire poll ratings – after hitting the one-year mark in office – and hostile headlines after allies told her to be more aggressive in promoting her work.
After a string of sometimes contentious TV interviews Thursday, she sets off on a four-day trip, returning on Monday to Washington via Milwaukee.
At the end of next week she flies to Honduras, for the swearing in of a new president, and a chance to develop her role as the administration’s point person on tackling the root causes of migration from Central America.
White House aides chafe at the idea of a reset after high-profile departures in the vice president’s office or that Friday’s visit to San Bernardino is part of selling Harris, rather than talking about an important issue.
‘As climate change increasingly fuels hotter, drier, and longer wildfire seasons, and development continues to expand in the wildland urban Interface, the proactive and preventative measures that are taken while fires are not burning become even more essential,’ said a White House official.
Some $600 million will go to California to help it clean up, reforest damaged areas and repair infrastructure.
Vice President Kamala Harris will announce more than a billion dollars in funding for the U.S. Forestry Service on Friday during a trip to San Bernardino on Friday
Last year, the Dixie Fire became the largest in California history, part of a devastating wildfire season. These images show a community center in flames in Greenville, California (above) and the damaged structure after the fire was put out (below)
Kamala Harris has endured terrible poll numbers as the Biden-Harris administration grapples with crises and amid reports of dysfunction in the vice president’s office
Her visit reflects a new push by the White House to get the president and vice president on the road more, and turn over the daily legislation negotiations to aides.
It comes amid a slew of reports that Harris is planning to meet negative coverage head on, with a busier media schedule and a campaign schedule that her supporters say will better suit her political skills.
‘I don’t know if it’s a reset so much as just getting her out and about again after a difficult time,’ said a Democratic strategist, who like several others spoke on condition of anonymity in order to be candid.
It follows a turbulent period in office, with her approval ratings under water and key staff departing.
In recent weeks she has taken on a new communications director and worked to fill other public relations positions.
Her first year in office reached its lowest point last month, when she was branded a ‘bully’ who inflicted ‘constant soul destroying criticism’ on her staff by insiders quoted in the Washington Post.
Former staffers said the vice president was exhibiting the same management style that had dogged much of her political career.
Spokeswoman Symone Sanders, communications chief Ashley Etienne and two other staffers who helped shape the vice president’s public image departed the office at the end of the year.
At the same time she has been a lightning rod for Republican criticism.
Conservatives have focused on her role trying to tackle the root causes of migration to the U.S. from Central America, which so far appear not to have stemmed the numbers arriving at the southern border.
And her poll numbers remain mired below 40 percent. A Real Clear Politics rolling average shows 38.6 percent of respondents give her a favorable rating, while 53.7 percent have an unfavorable view of the vice president.
Some strategists said that was in part of her own making, with internal office problems making their way into public.
‘She was seen as someone who had the skills and the background to be a fighter and a leader could be out front,’ said one.
‘But unfortunately as folks knew during the campaign and certainly after – the house was on fire in the campaign from time to time, and it seems as though those issues followed her into the vice presidency.’
Republican pollster Frank Luntz said she had endured a torrid time in the spotlight.
‘I have never seen someone’s credibility be destroyed so fast and so thoroughly, having done nothing at all to deserve it,’ he said, before adding that perhaps that was the problem: ‘That she did nothing at all.’
The vice president’s office has been hit by a string of resignations. Chief spokesperson Symone Sanders (l) left at the end of the year, part of an exodus that included communications chief Ashley Etienne and other officials in charge of crafting her image
In November, President Biden made a point of arriving at a White House function with his vice president amid reports that she was being frozen out by his team
The good news he said was that the U.S. was a nation of forgivers and that Harris had been in the firing line for a year – not long enough for the criticism to be ‘fully baked’
‘But she actually has to do something. And let’s face it, she’s done nothing,’ he said.
‘Biden gives her no responsibilities whatsoever and her own staff doesn’t get along with his staff on communication.’
That was the message delivered by allies last month when Harris met black female leaders to ask for creative ways to connect with ordinary Americans.
They told her to be more open about her work and offered to serve as ambassadors for her, according to Politico.
‘She was asking for clarity on how to best touch the everyday American rank and file who may or may not be living Beltway life like we do,’ said Shavon Arline-Bradley, president of D4 in Action.
‘She said “I want the message to resonate with the Beltway and beyond, outside of Washington, D.C. How do I get that message out?”‘
She has already hit the airwaves for a string of in-depth interviews since the new year. She has sat for interviews with PBS, two with NBC’s Today show – including a testy one on Thursday, followed by a more good humored one with CBS Mornings.
But Costas Panagopoulos, professor of political science at Northeastern University, said Harris was limited in what she could change.
Her approval ratings tracked Biden’s and were often identical, he said.
‘Even as the vice president may be trying to be more visible and involved, it will be the administration’s actions and performance that will determine the fate of her ratings,’ he said.
‘Biden and Harris will sink or swim together. If the public approves of the administration’s performance, both Biden and Harris will benefit; if not, approval ratings for both will likely sink in tandem.’
Working as a team to improve the administration’s performance, he added, was probably her best bet.
‘The vice president also has to walk a fine line between her efforts to tout the accomplishments of the Biden administration versus her own personal role,’ said Panagopoulos
‘At this point, it could be counterproductive to seem to distance herself from the president.’