Top Kamala Harris Aide Heads for the Exit… Vice President Kamala Harris’s communications chief Ashley Etienne is leaving the White House. A veteran of the Barack Obama administration and a former senior adviser to both House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Joe Biden, Etienne transitioned to Harris’s team in the weeks following the 2020 election.
When Etienne joined the vice president’s office she told me she would stay for the first year, but still her departure comes after a raft of stories on infighting and low morale in the vice president’s office.
It is not unusual for White House staffers to leave at the one-year mark. Etienne made the decision to leave at this time upon taking the job. Harris’s office has been beset by unflattering stories, centered largely on how public a role the vice president should have. With her approval rating dipping to 28%, Harris went on Good Morning America on Thursday morning to defend her role and the administration. When George Stephanopoulos asked if she felt “misused or underused” by the White House, Harris pushed back. “No,” she said. “I don’t. I’m very, very excited about the work that we have accomplished. But I am also absolutely, absolutely clear-eyed that there is a lot more to do, and we’re gonna get it done.”
Sworn in during a pandemic and in the wake of the January 6 Capitol riot, there was little room for Harris to find her footing at the beginning of her term in office. She graced the cover of Vogue and then, almost immediately, seemed to fade. “I think that when the insurrection coverage hit—rightly so—it took all of the soft media off the grid,” Rebecca Katz, a progressive strategist and founding partner of New Deal Strategies, said. “In the lead up to the vice president’s inauguration, what would have been a time to get stories about her and how remarkable it was—the first woman, the first woman of color—those stories never really happened in the degree that they would have, if our country wasn’t in such a scary place.”
Some advisers have been pushing for Harris to be more visible, and clashing with those who don’t believe that is the best path, according to sources I have spoken with. The tension came to a head in September, when Harris joined The View live for what was set to be her first in-studio sit-down interview. The event quickly devolved into a fiasco after two of the hosts were abruptly pulled over false positive COVID tests. While Harris ended up doing the interview remotely, the chaos on air eclipsed anything she said. Some in Harris’s orbit have blamed the vice president’s chief of staff, Tina Flournoy, a veteran Clinton ally, for the poor perception of the principal, arguing that she hasn’t been protecting her boss’s interests. But many also see a pattern spanning Harris’s Senate career, her presidential campaign, and now vice presidency. “The one through line would be the principal and not the staff. I don’t think it’s necessarily fair to blame the staff for all of the stray voltage around that operation,” a former White House staffer said.
The vice presidency is a thankless job. That the position is inherently deferential to the presidency complicates the dynamics for anyone in the role. And Harris undeniably faces unprecedented expectations, as the first Indian American and Black woman to ever hold the position. “Obviously you can’t account for [the criticism] without a big lens on gender. Obviously you can’t account for it without a big lens on race,” the former staffer said.
In addition to those who feel she is being ill-served by staff and by her own instincts, there are those who blame the White House. Biden handed Harris a trying and thankless portfolio that included voting rights and diplomacy as it relates to the southern border—two flash point issues without easy solutions. Now she’s polling even lower than the president; a recent USA Today and Suffolk University poll clocked her favorability rating at an abysmal 28% compared to Biden’s 38%. Tensions between the president and vice president are not uncommon. “I think part of it is like my family, my Democratic family is always going to be more dysfunctional than theirs. It’s just the nature of our coalition. Joe Biden did not pick a Mike Pence,” said Steve Schale, a Democratic strategist who worked on the Obama campaign and ran a pro–Biden super PAC in 2020. “He picked a strong, successful, independent woman who’s had her own career and ran for president in her own right.”
On multiple levels, Harris is in a unique position, complicated by the widespread perception when they entered office that Biden could serve just one term. Indeed, when Biden tapped her to join the ticket, his thinking—as his allies and veterans of Obamaworld outlined to me at the time—was to bridge the gap between his septuagenarian stature and the next generation of Democratic leadership. As a woman of color decades his junior, Harris fit the bill. Even before the votes were tallied last fall, the notion that Biden could be a one-term president was the quiet part even his staunchest supporters would say out loud, just not on the record. So when Biden and Harris were sworn into office, she was effectively anointed his successor and the default front-runner for Democrats in 2024.
“We have not had a sitting vice president cast as the heir apparent since 1996—and that guy had four years to find his sea legs. She hasn’t been given the same running room given to vice presidents [Dick] Cheney, Biden, Pence. All of her coverage lands differently in that context,” the former White House staffer said.
But now, a Democratic strategist told me, the Democratic establishment and donor base increasingly see Harris as a “nonstarter” in 2024 if Biden doesn’t run. “I think her biggest problem is that she is naturally cautious and she has been hamstrung by the administration,” the strategist told me. “It has put her in a place where she is almost too shell-shocked to get out and do anything.”
The slew of bad headlines began with a CNN report on Sunday, pushing both Biden and Harris’s teams into defensive mode. In a statement, Harris spokesperson Symone Sanders said it was “unfortunate” that “some in the media are focused on gossip—not on the results that the president and the vice president have delivered.” White House officials from Jen Psaki to Ronald Klain issued full-throated defenses of Harris and her office. Biden’s decision to tap former New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu to oversee distributing funds in the infrastructure package, as opposed to leaving it in the hands of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, could be interpreted as a strategic move to shutter speculation that the former presidential hopeful is now being positioned as Biden’s heir apparent following the passage of the $1.2 trillion infrastructure deal. “I think that it is clear that they’re both jockeying to kind of be the Biden heir,” one Democratic lawmaker said. This person added, “It’s unhelpful to Biden.”
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