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Harris in the spotlight as White House confronts Democratic frustration over guns and abortion rights

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WASHINGTON — For more than a year, Vice President Kamala Harris’ office has battled the perception that she lacks the kind of influence and prominence that President Joe Biden once had in the role.

But as some Democrats publicly criticize Biden’s response to the fall of Roe v. Wade and the latest in a series of mass shootings, these events have offered Harris the opportunity for something of a second act. 

It’s as much by coincidence as design. The day after Biden offered a tepid reaction to the shooting that killed seven people during a July Fourth parade in Highland Park, Illinois, Harris was more fervent in blasting GOP opposition to gun safety measures during a previously scheduled trip to Chicago. 

“We need to end this horror. We need to stop this violence,” she said at an event before making an unannounced visit to the site of the shooting. “Enough is enough.”

When the Supreme Court announced its decision to overturn constitutional protections for abortion rights, Harris again seemed to be in the right place at the right time — en route to an event highlighting maternal health care. As she pored through text of the decision that had been printed for her on Air Force Two, she quickly assessed it even more far-reaching than Democrats had feared, and then explained to her audience that it “calls into question other rights that we thought were settled” — from access to contraception to interracial marriage.

But interviews with more than a dozen White House officials and others close to the administration say that a Harris staff shake-up has led to a closer relationship with those in the West Wing, contributing to greater involvement in the White House’s response at key moments. While Harris’ previous chief of staff had participated in senior staff and strategy meetings, the vice president’s new chief of staff, Lorraine Voles, was added to a separate daily meeting of Biden’s closest advisers at Harris’ request, NBC News has learned. Harris herself has had a weekly one-on-one with chief of staff Ron Klain, who had served as chief of staff to Vice President Al Gore and Biden himself, since the start of the administration.

Biden allies have bristled at suggestions even from within his own party that the president is not meeting the moment. And they pointed to Friday’s pair of White House events — the president signing an executive order aimed at protecting abortion access, and Harris meeting with lawmakers in GOP-dominated states fighting new restrictions — as how the governing pair can offer a “one-two punch” on key issues that have some Democrats clamoring for a more robust response. 

“Her wheelhouse is fighting and drawing distinctions whatever they may be,” Cedric Richmond, a former White House senior adviser now at the Democratic National Committee, said in an interview. In the months ahead, Richmond said, Harris will continue to “prosecute the case on how extreme this party is and how far from the norm they have deviated to strip people of their rights.”

In the view of some Democrats, Harris’ background as the first Black, female vice president, 22 years younger than the president and with experience in elected office as a prosecutor, makes her a more natural messenger than Biden on issues like abortion and guns. And she’s drawn on that experience in delivering a more energized version of the administration’s message on those issues to audiences outside Washington in recent days.

Her efforts are a test of whether recent attempts to improve the relationship between her office and the West Wing can bear fruit in ways that have eluded the White House so far. It’s too early to tell if the dynamic will work or last longer term.

At the heart of Harris’ early challenges was what was Biden’s goal of replicating with Harris the kind of governing partnership he had over eight years with President Barack Obama. It had been Biden who set the terms for the role he wanted to play in as Obama’s No. — as the “last person in the room” to advise the president, especially in the areas where he had a longer history with both the topic and the key players involved, given his decades in the Senate.

But Harris, as some close to her have often pointed out, is the first vice president in decades to enter the role with less Washington experience than the president. And for the early months of their administration, the preeminent challenges were ones in which Biden primarily relied on his own relationships and experience — whether it was negotiating with Congress on his economic agenda, or grappling with consequences of ending the 20-year war in Afghanistan.

The most high-profile role Biden first delegated to Harris — migration to the southern border — only magnified the political challenges she had adjusting to her new role. And a burst of one-on-one interviews last fall and even ramped-up foreign travel schedule ahead of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine failed to reset the narrative that she was struggling to find her footing under an intense spotlight in the second highest profile position in the country.  

Joel Goldstein, who has long studied the vice presidency, said the internal preoccupation over Harris’ policy portfolio has been a “mistaken quest.”

“With the vice president, the question ought to be: How can this person add value given the administration’s strengths and weaknesses? And one of Vice President Harris’ perceived strengths is a public communicator,” Goldstein said. “The idea that when you put all those things together — that she’s an effective communicator and that she really represents the idea of inclusivity — it makes sense that she would play an important role in grabbing the megaphone on these issues, and perhaps adding strength in an area where the admin needs help.”

As the constellation of challenges facing the administration has expanded, observers say it is incumbent on her to now continue to capitalize on the moment.

“I think she has to stay out there,” said Rep. Jim Clyburn of South Carolina, the No. 3 Democrat in the House. “You’ve got to stick with it.”

Chris Meagher, a White House spokesperson, said that Biden “trusts Vice President Harris and knows she will continue to be passionate and outspoken in the administration’s effort to protect access to reproductive health care, and to keep our children and communities safe from gun violence.”

Even some Harris aides concede this moment has found her, not the other way around, giving her a bigger platform on issues that have been a focus of her career. Rohini Kosoglu, the vice president’s top policy adviser, was riding with Harris in the motorcade when she pointed out ways in which the Supreme Court opinion went further than the initial leaked draft.

“Given her longtime background in this space, as [California] attorney general, as senator, and now vice president, she certainly comes to this with a specific degree of expertise. But also I can’t emphasize enough how taken aback I think the country was, but particularly she was, by the actual legal text that they had put out in that opinion,” Kosoglu said in an interview.

The meeting Harris will convene Friday with Democratic legislators is the latest in what aides said has been her heavy involvement in abortion policy even before the Supreme Court decision. 

Harris has held four meetings on the issue since May, with abortion rights activists, religious leaders, legal experts, doctors and nurses, according to her office. One of those meetings was the day before the Supreme Court decision, with attorneys general from seven states. She also met with abortion providers and patients in September after Texas enacted what at the time was the nation’s most restrictive abortion law. And in the lead-up to the June decision, she was featured in two White House videos on what the administration believed was at stake if Roe was overturned.

Republicans are also taking note of Harris’ prominence of late. A Republican National Committee spokesperson on Thursday noted that Harris has done 36 press interviews this year, compared to just two for Biden.

Biden has said he intends to run for re-election in 2024, and Harris just last week reiterated she’ll be on the ticket with him if he does. But even amid doubts in the party about Biden’s plans, Harris’ every move has been scrutinized more than most first-term vice presidents. 

Harris recently joined Clyburn for a major annual fundraising dinner in South Carolina — a notable foray for the vice president into a prominent early-voting state. Clyburn, whose endorsement of Biden provided a much-needed boost in 2020 and who encouraged Biden to choose a Black woman as his running mate, said her reception at the event was one of the strongest he’s seen. 

“Is she as strong today as she will be a year from now? I don’t think so. And certainly not as strong as she’d be two years from now,” Clyburn said.

“I expect her to build upon the foundation that’s being laid now,” he added. “And I give her as much credit growing into the job as anybody has before her.”

CLARIFICATION (July 8, 2022, 5:38 p.m. ET): A previous version of this article misstated which daily White House meeting the vice president’s new chief of staff now attends. Voles was added to a meeting of Biden’s closest advisers; she was already attending the wider senior staff meeting her predecessor participated in.