US Vice-President Kamala Harris held her head high as she took the oath of office. She stood stern and sincere as she recited the 35-word oath, but her face split into a grin as applause erupted.
But this isn’t to be the case for Harris. So, what will her vice-presidency look like?
A significant moment
Firstly, let’s take a second to acknowledge just how significant Harris’ appointment is. She’s the highest-ranking woman in the history of the United States, and the first black American and first person of South Asian descent to hold the nation’s second-highest office.
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She’s also the first graduate of a historically black university to enter the White House and will be part of the most racially, ethnically and gender-diverse cabinet in US history.
As Harris often says, she will be the first woman of colour in the role, but not the last.
Harris was sworn in by Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the first Hispanic justice of the court. She wore a bright purple tailored coat by queer black designer Christopher John Rogers and pearls by Wilfredo Rosado, born in New Jersey to Puerto Rican parents.
Both these details are significant: they communicated her commitment to inclusion, and her signature pearls — which supporters around the US are wearing today — reference her sorority Alpha Kappa Alpha, a black sorority founded in 1908.
What will the role look like?
Vice-presidents don’t have a direct legislative role, but President Joe Biden has stressed he will be leaning on Harris to help him make key decisions, asking her to be the “last voice in the room” and to challenge him.
Deakin University politics and policy studies senior lecturer Zim Nwokora told Crikey America was on “the cusp of radical change”.
“It’s a big moment for political change in the US … and Harris will be the root of that change, not just because of her heritage, but because of what’s happened in the Senate,” he said.
There’s a 50-50 seat split between Democrats and Republicans in the upper chamber, meaning Harris will cast the deciding ballot in any tie in the Senate.
“It cements the idea that she’s going to have a critical role in this administration,” he said.
Nwokora added Harris is likely to give announcements on initiatives that involve race and police reform — a priority of the Biden administration.
“She’s been a really strong politician on law, order and justice so I imagine that will be part of whatever portfolio she takes up.”
While Harris’ appointment is significant, Deakin University North American history Associate Professor Clare Corbould told Crikey that it’s important to remember this administration is not a radical one.
She said that for a lot of people involved in the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, the administration’s goals were not radical enough.
“There was no indication along the way from either Biden or Harris that they were on board with the more radical demands of BLM. They’re reformist liberals,” she said.
But what’s certain, Corbould adds, is that Harris will play a different role to former vice-president Mike Pence.
“The vice-president doesn’t usually lay out policy,” she said. “They can often be sidelined after elections.”
“Biden has done really well at making it look like Harris is part of the team because she has a formidable background and interesting personal story.”
A star waiting in the wings
It’s widely speculated Biden won’t run for a second term as president, and Harris is well suited to take his place as the Democratic nominee.
“Kamala is in her political prime, and she’d be a dead cert for the democratic nomination,” Nwokora said. Few vice-presidents ever become presidents, and it’s rare for a politician to be so well set up to take up the role. Of course, he added, a lot can happen in four years.
“The big questions are around what happens with the Republican Party, who the coalition will be made up of, and how they negotiate their disagreements,” he said.
Currently, the Republican Party is divided and in disarray following Trump’s incitement of the Capitol siege. Trump has flagged he wants to create his own political party, “the Patriot party“, which would further dilute Republican support.
Harris has faced controversy for her history as a hardline prosecutor and her role incarcerating black men for minor drug offences, but Corbould doesn’t think this will affect her popularity come next election.
“The symbolism of her being the first African American woman — plus the fact she’d be a better candidate than the Republicans — will still entice enough African Americans out to vote,” she said.
Even if the administration is less reforming than many had hoped for: “You ask for a lot, you accept that incremental change is often the best you’re going to get,” Corbould said.
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