Kamala Harris’ Next Assignment: Taking the Lead on Abortion
With Joe Biden's evolved but complicated history on abortion, Harris is set to be the primary messenger on a key issue.
Kamala Harris is expected to be the primary messenger on abortion policy during Joe Biden’s 2024 reelection campaign, according to several Democrats with knowledge of the decision, highlighting the president’s evolved but complicated history with an issue that has invigorated Democrats since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in 2022.
In closed-door sessions at the White House late last month, Biden administration officials told Democratic strategists and television analysts that Harris would be the leading advocate on the issue, two attendees told The Messenger. Several of those in attendance stressed how important it is to see more of Harris on abortion, pointing to the 2022 midterm elections where Democratic backlash to the Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization, which overturned the abortion precedent, helped the party overperform expectations.
“We made it clear we need her out there on this issue,” one attendee said.
Initially reluctant, abortion now central to Harris’ work
Since becoming vice president, Harris has grappled with finding a dominant issue that she could champion, struggling to get traction on either migration or voting rights. Harris has publicly and privately taken on abortion since the Supreme Court decision last year, and Democrats close to her say she’s been able to make inroads.
“I think you’re going to see her continue to take the lead on this issue, as she has done since the fall of Dobbs,” said Karen Finney, a Democratic strategist who has been a staunch supporter of the vice president. “The issue is going to be top of mind for voters in 2024 and women’s lives are in danger.”
Some White House allies have said Harris was initially reluctant to make abortion her dominant issue, but those around her said she seized upon the issue shortly after the Supreme Court decision.
Kamala Harris does not do anything that she does not want to do. The VP saw part of her role as a hub of information and connective tissues between state legislators, activists and the public.
Jamal Simmons, who served as her communications director at the time of the Supreme Court decision.
This strategy was clear when a Harris speech on the abortion fight became the first campaign event after the reelection officially launched with a video that highlighted the issue.
“This is no small action, given the crisis we see across the country,” said Ryan Stitzlein, senior National Political Director for NARAL Pro-Choice America, one of many groups that hosted the event.
Biden’s shift on Roe
While most abortion advocates have been content with Biden’s response to the Dobbs decision, there is a quiet acknowledgement that Biden, an 80-year old Catholic man who said in 1974 that Roe v. Wade “went too far,” is not the most natural spokesman on the issue.
Some advocates have faulted Biden for failing to say the word abortion for over 400 days in office, while others have said he does not fully capture the deep-seeded anger the Democratic base feels about the issue.
Biden has used the word abortion – most notably in his State of the Union address earlier this year – and responded to the Supreme Court’s decision by using his executive power to protect abortion rights. And Democrats more sympathetic to Biden contend the president speaks about the issue in the way it polls best with voters.
“It’s complicated. It did take him a very long time to even say the word abortion. … That said, I actually think there is something powerful about an older white man championing women’s rights. Women’s rights aren’t just about women.”
Dr. Anu Kumar, the President and CEO of Ipas, an organization working to increase access to abortion and contraception in the United States and internationally.
This disconnect may be clearest when compared to the passion that Democrats are bringing on the issue at the state level.
“He is getting better,” Natalie Murdock, a North Carolina state senator fighting state Republican efforts to pass a bill that would prohibit abortion past 12 weeks, said of Biden. “People wanted action a lot quicker, but I think when it came, folks were relieved to finally see he was moving forward.”
Kevin Munoz, a Biden campaign spokesman, made clear they plan to make abortion a central issue, arguing that “Americans have a choice between a President and Vice President who will fight to codify Roe into law, or one of the extreme MAGA Republicans who support a national abortion ban.”
Republicans give Biden space on abortion
The Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade opened the floodgates for Republican-led states across the country to pass laws that restrict access to abortion. That has put some Republican presidential candidates in a bind, forcing them to take certain abortion positions to energize their base while also worrying about how to appeal to a general election audience.
A February study by the Public Religion Research Institute found 64% of Americans said abortion should be legal in most or all cases (up from 55% in 2010) compared to 34% saying it should be illegal in most or all cases (down from 42%).
If the issue has been complicated for Republicans, it has been clarifying for Biden, giving him considerable space to operate by issuing executive actions, pledging to veto any restrictive action coming out of Congress and generally rallying his base.
The Republicans going so far has made this a pretty easy issue for Democrats. ... The Supreme Court and the Republican agenda is so clear now. When you overturn 50 years of precedent, your agenda is pretty clear.
Celinda Lake, a Biden pollster in 2020.
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