“Anytime we're talking about a president who's a septuagenarian or an octogenarian, we have to have a conversation about a succession plan,” political scientist Christina M. Greer told theGrio.
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With questions of President Joe Biden’s age dominating aspects of the 2024 presidential election, America’s historic vice president, Kamala Harris, is under the microscope as the constitutional successor to the Oval Office.
Biden, who turns 81 in November, is already the oldest person to serve as president in U.S. history. If he is re-elected to office in November 2024 as Democrats hope, his second term as commander-in-chief will last until he is 86.
However, doubts about Biden’s ability to or interest in serving a full second term have placed a spotlight, unduly or otherwise, on Harris, 58, who is first in line to presidential succession.
“Anytime we’re talking about a president who’s a septuagenarian or an octogenarian, we have to have a conversation about a succession plan,” Christina M. Greer, associate professor of political science at Fordham University, told theGrio.
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Harris was asked in a series of interviews last week about concerns over Biden’s age and whether or not she is prepared to step into the role of president.
“Yes, I am, if necessary,” Harris told CBS News directly.
However, the California Democrat gave another message to the Associated Press: “Joe Biden is going to be fine, so that is not going to come to fruition.”
Despite those assurances, national polling shows Americans hold concerns about Biden’s age and what it means for the country’s leadership. A poll conducted by CNN found that 62% of Democrats and 76% of Americans are “seriously concerned” about Biden’s ability to serve a full second term.
Under the U.S. Constitution, Section 2 of the 25th Amendment states, “In case of the removal of the President from office or of his death or resignation, the Vice President shall become President.”
If Biden is not able to serve a full second term, Harris, the first woman, first Black person and first South Asian to serve as vice president, would become the nation’s first female president and first Asian president, as well as just the second Black person to hold the office in U.S. history.
But Democrats and political experts say that the public shouldn’t read too deeply into Harris’ remarks regarding the potential of succession.
“The role of vice president is that — to be able to be prepared for any occurrence, and so, this should not be taken out of context,” Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, a Democrat from Texas, told theGrio. “She asked the simple question, ‘Are you prepared?’ She gave a simple answer, ‘I am prepared.’”
Jackson Lee said she sees “no reason to be concerned about the statement, whether she’s prepared or the question itself,” adding, “I think as the campaign continues, everyone will see that the president is prepared to run a vigorous and will run a vigorous re-election campaign.”
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Democratic strategist Alencia Johnson said that despite public scrutiny over Biden’s age and whether Harris could one day soon become President Harris, “I don’t think the conversations are happening [internally] at a different scale than they were in any other administration.”
However, she said, if such a line of succession were to occur, “she is capable from day one to do that work.” Johnson continued, “As a campaign strategist and political operative, campaigns know exactly what they’re doing when they’re picking a vice president.”
If anything, Johnson said she believes Harris speaking directly to concerns over Biden or her own fitness for the presidency is a reflection of the re-election campaign “preparing themselves for an onslaught of attacks from the Republican Party.”
Greer, the Fordham instructor, noted that the Republican Party’s strategy as it relates to Harris has been to “scare” their voters, as well as independents, who could abstain from voting against the Republican presidential nominee.
“What you’re essentially voting for is a Black woman,” Greer said of the message Republicans are trying to send to their voting base.
Earlier this year, Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley tweeted, “If you vote for Joe Biden, you really are counting on a President Harris because the idea that he would make it until 86 years old is not something that I think is likely.”
“She just said the quiet part out loud,” Greer said. “Republicans are using Kamala Harris as a motivator for the racist foundation of their party and the racist wing, which is an ever-growing wing of their party.”
Whether or not Vice President Harris becomes President Harris, Democrats dismiss any suggestions that she is not able to perform the job and perform it well.
“From her, as a woman, to the lead on the world stage, from her ability to understand issues that are impacting our democracy, she is more than qualified,” said Johnson.
Any suggestion that Harris is not capable of serving as president is ultimately seen as sexist in nature — something Johnson said feels eerily familiar.
“The conversation that we had around Hillary Clinton when she was running for president, there was this extra scrutiny of if a woman is capable of being president of the United States,” she recalled.
She added, “When Hillary Clinton ran, there was nobody as qualified as her as a former secretary of state, senator and had been in the White House as first lady.”
When asked if Democrats could use Harris to mobilize Black voters who may want to see a Black woman potentially become president sooner than expected, Greer said it’s “complicated.”
The political scientist said that due to misinformation and disinformation, as well as some resistance from progressive Democrats, some hold Harris “accountable” for her tenure as California attorney general and district attorney in San Francisco. She acknowledged that there’s a “certain standard” Harris is held to that “white male prosecutors don’t get held to in the Democratic Party.”
For an example, she recalled how white politicians and even Black congressmen pushed and voted for the now-controversial 1994 crime bill that led to the mass incarceration of Black Americans.
“They aren’t sort of penalized in the same way as Black women when it comes to past practices in different roles,” Greer said.
Hypothetical presidency aside, Harris continues to be out front as a valued proxy for Biden. This week, the vice president will embark on a college tour to mobilize students and young voters. Her first stop will be Hampton University, a historically Black university in Virginia.
“It is critically important for Vice President Harris to be talking about what this administration is doing to address the needs of young people and for them to see that someone like them, an HBCU grad, as well as a Black Greek, has been able to reach one of the highest positions in this country and that she is fighting for them,” said Johnson, who said she is “excited” to see how the tour goes.
“I am sure that this administration will also do a lot of listening,” she told theGrio. Johnson said it’s critical to hear “directly from the students on what they are concerned about and what they want to see this administration continue to do.”
She added, “Not only as they continue this first term but also as they are going around the country asking to be reelected.”
Gerren Keith Gaynor is a White House Correspondent and the Managing Editor of Politics at theGrio. He is based in Washington, D.C.
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