Since the 2020 presidential election was called in November, we knew that Sen. Kamala D. Harris would be the first woman, the first Black woman and the first Indian American to hold the office of vice president. We saw her at each rollout of President Biden’s Cabinet picks. Yet seeing her on the Capitol platform on Wednesday in bold purple colors was still an emotionally charged moment. She often instructs young people to own their power and walk “with chin up and shoulders back.” That is precisely how she appeared, effectively announcing, “I am here. I belong.”
This was not only a historic milestone, but it was also the culmination of decades of work to recognize and empower women — specifically women of color.
After the inauguration, we watched as Harris walked the final stretch to the White House, along with her stepchildren from her blended family. During that short stroll, she redefined what a traditional vice president’s family looks like. Multiracial, multiethnic and religiously diverse families can see themselves in her extended clan. Young children will never remember a time when the office was the exclusive province of White men.
Every ceremony, from the swearing in to the wreath-laying at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery, will look different with Harris present. Every outfit, every motion and every speech will redefine the office she has assumed. We will no doubt see her with troops and foreign leaders, which will recalibrate our assumptions about what a commander in chief, one day, might look like.
With a particularly ebullient personality and her talent in joyfully interacting with average Americans, Harris will be a dramatic departure from her dour, gray predecessor. While she is respectful of Biden, we are not going to witness the fawning and Soviet-style flattery we witnessed from the vice president over the last four years.
Beyond that, we do not yet know how she will define her role in the administration. Biden as a vice president managed huge initiatives such as the Obama administration’s initial stimulus plan. Former vice president Dick Cheney took over vast swatches of his boss’s agenda, especially in the realms of foreign affairs and energy policy. Unlike Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, however, Biden is no novice in the White House on foreign policy or on many domestic issues. It will ultimately be up to Biden and Harris to work out their division of labor, allocating her areas to expand her range of experience.
If Biden does nothing else as president, his selection of Harris will represent a leap forward for women of color. She is, as Obama was, a transcendent figure who comes with enormous expectations and a rare opportunity to shift Americans’ political expectations and conception of leaders.
It would be foolish to ignore the possibility that we are also watching the woman most likely to one day become the first woman and the first woman of color to occupy the Oval Office. She must first help Biden to succeed; his accomplishments will be hers, as well. But if the prospect of a woman of color as commander in chief seemed far-fetched only a year ago, it now seems entirely possible. That’s the impact of seeing Harris where she belongs: front and center on the national stage.