WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris may not have won over America in her first two years in office, but she's staying put at President Joe Biden's side.
The first woman vice president is gearing up for another national campaign despite low poll ratings, a failure to win over the Washington establishment and concern among fellow Democrats about an underwhelming start in the job.
Harris heads into a high pressure situation as Biden, now 80, moves toward an unprecedented run for a second term as the first octogenarian in the Oval Office.
If he wins and becomes ill or cannot fulfill his duties, Harris, 58, would succeed him. That reality will hang over their 2024 re-election bid.
While the pair have a good working relationship, Democratic sources say Biden has frustrations about some of her work. He is also convinced that neither Harris nor any other Democratic hopefuls would be able to beat former President Donald Trump if he is the Republican nominee, a factor that has influenced Biden's inclination to run again, one former White House official said.
"If he did not think she was capable, he would not have picked her. But it is a question of consistently rising to the occasion," said the former official, speaking on condition of anonymity. "I think his running for re-election is less about her and more about him, but I do think that she and the Democratic bench (are) a factor."
Harris leaves on a trip to Africa later this week, a visit that may underscore her foreign policy credentials and generate the kind of positive headlines back home that have often eluded her.
When Biden picked Harris, only the second Black woman ever elected to the U.S. Senate, she was more popular than he was with women, young voters and even some Republicans, an August 2020 Reuters/Ipsos poll showed.
As vice president, though, she has a 39% favorability rating, according to an average by polling aggregator RealClearPolitics, below Biden's 42.3%.
Some Democrats, including people who have worked in Biden's West Wing, expressed disappointment that Harris has not stepped up more on critical issues, taking advantage of her platform and inoculating herself -- and her running mate -- against the criticism that could overshadow their next campaign.
"I think this is actually one of the fundamental strategic challenges for (Biden) ... how to navigate this," said one Democrat with close ties to the White House, noting the implausibility of replacing Harris on the presidential ticket. "It's almost impossible for them to make a change."
Biden could lose crucial votes if he were to drop Harris, who is both the first Black and Asian-American U.S. vice president.
"You cannot replace your first Black woman vice president and think that Black people and women are going to just vote for you," the former White House official said. "He needs her."
Biden has said he intends to be the Democratic candidate in 2024 but has not made a formal announcement. Both Biden and Harris have said they will run together.
2024 A MOMENT TO SHINE?
While the vice president has disappointed some inside her party, Democrats see opportunity in the 2024 race.
Harris is expected to campaign vigorously, including with women and minority groups, constituencies with whom she has connected as vice president.
"The re-election could be her moment to shine," said Democratic strategist Lis Smith. "She is at her best when she gets back to her prosecutorial roots and when she can really make a case, and Democrats are going to need to make one hell of a case to win in 2024."
Aides and supporters of Harris, California's former attorney general, say she has been a big booster of Biden's agenda. She has highlighted efforts to protect women's reproductive rights, bolster small businesses and fight climate change -- all issues that will feature in the 2024 campaign.
"The vice president's job really is to make sure that you carry the mission of the administration forward and she has done that very successfully around the country. Unfortunately ... I don't think she gets the credit in the public eye she deserves," outgoing Labor Secretary Marty Walsh said.
Connecting with party leaders is key in Washington, but Harris does not go out much in town, and Democratic strategist Bud Jackson said she has not "lit a fire" under the Democratic establishment.
"In a Machiavellian sense, Democrats think that Biden is hopefully fine for another term and we don't have to worry about the second-in-command, because I think, in our mind, Biden lasts another term and then Harris is not the preordained Democratic nominee (for 2028)," Jackson said.
"Some of this lack of enthusiasm is unrealistic expectations that she was going to be some kind of rock star as vice president, and that's not fair to expect."
ISSUES ON BIDEN'S PLATE
People close to them say Biden and Harris like each other and get along well.
"They have a great relationship. He leans on her a lot," said Cedric Richmond, a former congressman and former senior adviser in Biden's White House. "People consistently underestimate both of them, and they consistently prove people wrong."
Asked if there were any discussion of removing her from the ticket, Richmond said: "I would adamantly say that the answer is: Hell no!"
Harris used to meet weekly with Biden's former chief of staff Ron Klain, and now meets regularly with his successor, Jeff Zients, and has a good relationship with senior adviser Anita Dunn -- all important allies in Biden's orbit.
But some who work in or have worked in his West Wing said her engagement on policy was lacking.
"A point of tension in their relationship is that I don't think that the president sees her as somebody who takes anything off of his plate," a second former White House official said, adding a "fear of messing up" had led Harris to be late to the game on important issues.
ABORTION RIGHTS, IMMIGRATION
Harris's allies refute that characterization and point to her advocacy against abortion restrictions as an issue that Harris has taken off the Catholic president's shoulders.
"Joe Biden is clear where he stands on the issue. I think it's also been a difficult issue for him to be, you know, talking about it in the way that the vice president could," a third former White House official said.
Biden lauded Harris's work on the issue after Democrats performed better than expected in last year's midterm elections.
"She knew from the beginning this was an issue that mattered to people," one aide said. The November election proved she was right: the results from ballot measures and competitive races showed that voters of all political stripes were eager to protect abortion access at the state level, something that overwhelmingly helped Democrats.
Other policy tasks have not had the same level of success.
Republicans hammered Harris over immigration and migrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico border after Biden tasked her with leading his administration's response to the exodus of people fleeing Central American countries for the United States.
She has traveled to the region twice and the U.S.-Mexico border once.
"She, I think, is smart. She does not see this as a political win for her. Because it's not. It's a really hard issue," one current administration official said.
Harris allies say her remit was to focus on Central America, not to take on border security as a whole.
"That was not her assignment," said the third former White House official, referring to reducing migrant crossings at the U.S.-Mexico border broadly. "There was a team whose assignment it was."
(Reporting by Jeff Mason and Nandita Bose; additional reporting by Ted Hesson; Editing by Heather Timmons and Alistair Bell)