The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion It’s hard to mess up being vice president. But Kamala Harris has.

Vice President Harris in the South Court Auditorium on the White House campus on Nov. 16. (Patrick Semansky/AP)

It’s hard to screw up being vice president. George H.W. Bush famously said he attended so many funerals that the job description might as well be: “You die, I fly.” But after just 10 months in office, Kamala D. Harris has managed to make herself the least popular vice president at this point in at least 50 years.

President Biden’s approval has plummeted to just 36 percent in the recent Quinnipiac poll — which puts his approval lower than Donald Trump’s all-time low in the RealClearPolitics average.

But Harris’s popularity is even worse. In a recent Suffolk University-USA Today poll that put Biden’s popularity at a measly 37.8 percent, Harris ran 10 points lower at 27.8 percent. Those are depths of unpopularity even Trump never plumbed.

Usually, a vice president’s poll numbers don’t matter that much. But with Biden struggling in the polls, Harris is supposed to be the Democrats’ backup plan for 2024. Already, nearly two-thirds of Americans, according to the Suffolk University-USA Today poll, say they don’t want Biden to run for a second term — and they increasingly believe he is not physically or mentally up to the job. A new Politico-Morning Consult poll finds half the country does not believe that Biden is in good health — a massive 29-point shift from October 2020, when voters believed he was healthy by a 19-point margin. And a 48 percent plurality say he is not mentally fit to be president. Last October, voters believed he was mentally fit by a 21-point margin. If this many Americans have lost confidence in the president’s cognitive abilities after just 10 months of watching him in action, imagine what it will be like in three years when he has to stand for reelection?

President Biden is hitting the road to tout the passage of the infrastructure bill, hoping he can reverse his flagging poll numbers before the 2022 midterms. (Video: Joyce Koh/The Washington Post)

So, the jockeying to replace Biden has already begun. And that means the knives have come out for Harris, with rivals and their supporters planting hit pieces on her in the media. CNN recently reported: “Worn out by what they see as entrenched dysfunction and lack of focus, key West Wing aides have largely thrown up their hands at Vice President Kamala Harris and her staff — deciding there simply isn’t time to deal with them right now.” Harris’s camp, in turn, is publicly grousing that she’s been set up for failure, assigned to manage Biden’s self-inflicted crisis at the southern border, and charged with passing a partisan federal election law that is highly popular with the base but has zero chance of being enacted.

The problem for Democrats is there are no good alternatives to Biden. Ask yourself: Why did Democrats nominate Biden in the first place? He is the oldest man ever elected president — older on the day he took office than Ronald Reagan was on the day he left office. He won by hiding in his basement and ceding the public stage to Trump, who alienated enough Americans to give Democrats the White House.

Democrats spent the entire 2020 primary season searching for an acceptable alternative to Biden and could not find one. They ultimately settled on him because he was the “least bad” choice — an inoffensive, genial moderate who was least likely to drive away swing voters tired of Trump but wary of the Democrats’ leftward turn.

Well, less than a year into his presidency, Biden’s popularity is in free fall, his vice president and presumed heir is less popular than he is, and there are still no viable alternatives. Most of the potential 2024 candidates being discussed are 2020 also-rans who failed to connect with voters in the Democratic primaries. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg is trying to raise his profile by taking false credit for the Biden administration’s one popular achievement — passage of a bipartisan infrastructure bill. But Buttigieg had literally no role in negotiating the infrastructure bill. None. He was absent on the job. And he has also presided over the worst supply chain crisis in memory. Grocery stores sold out of turkeys at Thanksgiving and empty store shelves at Christmas are not generally a winning path to the presidency.

But Buttigieg may be on to something. The bipartisan infrastructure bill is indeed popular — supported by 81 percent of Democrats, 63 percent of independents and 46 percent of Republicans, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll. That’s because it represents exactly what Biden promised voters in 2020 but failed to deliver — normalcy, compromise, unity and bipartisanship. If Democrats want to dig themselves out of the political hole they are in, maybe they should turn to the two leaders in their party who did not run in 2020 and are actually responsible for the bill’s passage?

Joe Manchin-Kyrsten Sinema 2024 — now that’s a Democratic ticket that would terrify the GOP.