Announcement of Senator Kamala Harris as Candidate for VP of the United States - Wilmington, DE - August 12, 2020. Photo by Adam Schultz / Biden for President
Announcement of Senator Kamala Harris as Candidate for VP of the United States – Wilmington, DE – August 12, 2020
Photo by Adam Schultz / Biden for President

Professor of American History Kevern Verney from Edge Hill University shares his expert opinion on what Kamsla Harris’ election as Vice President means for America and whether she could be the next President.

The Vice-President elect made history as the first woman and person of colour to be elected to the role. 

Election recounts in Georgia and Wisconsin and legal challenges notwithstanding, Kamala Harris is set to make history on 20 January when she becomes the first woman to be Vice President of the United States.  

She will also be the first Vice President with African American and Asian American heritage. Her West Indian father was born in Jamaica and her mother emigrated to the United States from India. Kamala is an Indian name meaning lotus flower.   

But what exactly is the role of the Vice President?   

Article II of the United States Constitution (1787), which defines the powers of the President, is notably silent on the duties of the Vice President. Reflecting the gendered mindset of the time it states only that ‘in case of the removal of the President from office, or of his death, resignation, or inability to discharge the powers and duties of the said office, the same shall devolve on the Vice President’. 

This lack of defined powers means that the role of the Vice President has varied greatly over time, depending on the character and aspirations of the individuals concerned and the nature of their relationship with the President. At worst it can be little more than a ceremonial role, what John Nance Garner, Vice President under Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1930s, memorably compared to ‘a bucket of warm spit’. Over the last four years Vice President Mike Pence has often seemed a marginalized figure, overshadowed by the larger than life personality of President Trump.  

The role of Kamala Harris is likely to be very different, for a number of reasons. In his years as Vice President Joe Biden developed a close rapport with President Obama, and he was fully included in key policy making decisions. During his time in the White House it is likely that he will continue with this successful model. Their recent public appearances together suggest that Biden has already developed a strong working relationship with Harris. 

At 78 Biden will also be the oldest person to take office as President. This, combined with the exceptional demands of the modern presidency, mean he will probably welcome a sharing of responsibility with her. 

Perhaps most important of all the office of Vice President, as in Biden’s own case, is often a stepping stone to the presidency. If ill health were to prevent President Biden from finishing his term of office Kamala Harris would automatically succeed him. Moreover, if Biden decides not to seek a second term of office Harris would be the obvious Democratic Party frontrunner for the Presidency in 2024. 

Including Biden, the United States has had fourteen Presidents since 1945. Six of them came to the job after serving as Vice President.  

Kevern Verney is Associate Dean Research and Professor in American History in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Edge Hill University. To find out more about studying history at Edge Hill click here.