White House skips introduction of ‘key partner’ Kamala Harris at bill signing

The White House insisted Monday that Vice President Kamala Harris is an important part of President Biden’s team, but staffers botched the introduction of the vice president hours later at a high-profile bill-signing ceremony.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki rejected reports that Ms. Harris is unhappy in her role, describing the vice president as “a key partner” for the president and “a bold leader.”

“I can tell you that there’s been a lot of [negative] reports out there and they don’t reflect his view or our experience with the vice president,” Ms. Psaki said.

As if to underscore Ms. Harris’ importance in the administration, the White House gave her a prominent role in a ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House as Mr. Biden signed into law a $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill. The two emerged from the White House together, smiling and giving thumbs-up signals to the audience as they strode across the lawn in bright sunshine to strains of “Hail to the Chief.”

But in a staging gaffe as Ms. Harris arrived at the podium to speak, the White House’s public-address announcer asked the crowd instead to “please welcome Heather Kurtenbach,” an Ironworkers organizer who was to introduce Mr. Biden. The vice president thus spoke without introduction.

“In a moment,” a smiling Ms. Harris said of the labor leader, who was standing beside her at the podium.

The president thanked Ms. Harris and the rest of his team, but then digressed into an awkward joke about the vice president’s husband, second gentleman Doug Emhoff, spending too much time with first lady Jill Biden. He referred to Mr. Emhoff as Jill Biden’s “second husband.”

“No. I’m joking. These guys travel all over the country together. I’m getting worried, you know?” the president said.

Ms. Harris said the infrastructure legislation “proves that in America, we have the courage to believe a better future is possible, and to build it together.”

But her own political future is an open question. Ms. Psaki’s defense of the vice president came after CNN, citing three dozen sources, reported that top presidential advisers “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, especially at a moment when President Joe Biden faces quickly multiplying legislative and political concerns.”

“The exasperation runs both ways,” the report stated.  “Many in the vice president’s circle fume that she’s not being adequately prepared or positioned, and instead is being sidelined. The vice president herself has told several confidants she feels constrained in what she’s able to do politically.”

Democrats headed into this year viewing Ms. Harris as the eventual successor to Mr. Biden, either in 2024 or 2028. But her rocky first year in office has caused some Democrats to rethink that possibility, while others say Ms. Harris appears to be limiting her public appearances.

“Where has VP Harris been?” Jacquelyn Bettadapur, chair of the Cobb County, Georgia, Democrats, asked The Washington Times in an email. “Haven’t seen much of her as of late.  Of course, her presence on the national stage is subject to determination by the Biden administration, not her own personal volition.”

Ms. Psaki, asked if the president would give her his “automatic endorsement” in either 2024 or 2028, dodged the question.

“I don’t have any predictions of whether she will run when she will run,” she said. “I will leave that to her.”

Ms. Harris just returned from a five-day visit to France, a trip that was partly intended to boost her profile. A poll last week showed her approval rating at 28%, a historic low for a vice president at this point in the first year in office.

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, who is increasingly mentioned as someone who could leapfrog over Ms. Harris’ presidential ambitions, said Monday the criticism of her is “totally wrong.”

“The vice president is coming off a very successful diplomatic mission overseas,” he said on Fox Business Network. “She has been one of the leading figures in making sure that this piece of infrastructure got passed. And I can tell you, in this administration, being given tough assignments is a sign of respect and confidence. I admire her. I’m proud to work with her.”

Seth McLaughlin contributed to this report.