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Inside Vice President Harris' First Few Weeks In Office

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

It's been two weeks since Vice President Kamala Harris became the first woman and first woman of color to hold that office. As NPR White House correspondent Scott Detrow reports, for all the barriers Harris broke, for the moment, her vice presidency looks a lot like those that came before her.

SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: In her first two weeks in the job, Vice President Harris has been seen standing with President Biden as he signs orders and swearing in new Cabinet members.

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VICE PRESIDENT KAMALA HARRIS: Raise your right hand. I, Peter Buttigieg...

PETE BUTTIGIEG: I, Peter Buttigieg...

HARRIS: ...Do solemnly swear...

BUTTIGIEG: ...Do solemnly swear...

DETROW: That's all pretty standard for vice presidents. And both Harris and Biden say they're prioritizing the work Harris is doing away from the cameras. Harris spoke to NPR about this shortly before taking office.

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HARRIS: Let me tell you something. On every decision that we have made as an incoming administration, we're in the room together, Joe and I, the president-elect and I.

DETROW: When Joe Biden was vice president, he often stated a blunt reality.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: There is no inherent power in the vice presidency.

DETROW: But as Biden told "The Late Show With Stephen Colbert" in 2015, there is a flip side to that if you have a good relationship with the president.

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BIDEN: That you have his back and you also have his confidence - then you can really do something worthwhile.

DETROW: Biden made it clear from the beginning that he planned on having as close a working relationship with Harris as he had with Barack Obama. And a White House official says over their first two weeks in office, Harris has been in most meetings with Biden. So what kind of approach is Harris taking in those meetings?

NATHAN BARANKIN: No one has ever accused Kamala Harris of being unprepared.

DETROW: Nathan Barankin has spent a lot of time in meetings with Harris. He was her chief of staff when Harris was California attorney general and then during her first two years as a U.S. senator. Barankin says one thing Harris has always prided herself on is representing the viewpoint of the type of person who's not in the meeting, like when she was negotiating with major banks over mortgage fraud.

BARANKIN: It's something like, how does this affect that homeowner in Stockton, Calif., who just lost their job, has X thousands of dollars in school debt, bought their first home just a few years ago? It is their only major asset.

DETROW: Still, given Harris' barrier-breaking role, there's a lot of focus on and questions about what she'll do in public. Jessica Byrd, a Democratic strategist and the co-founder of The Front Line, says she views it all with what she calls a nervous optimism.

JESSICA BYRD: I just know how complicated of a position that she's in.

DETROW: By that, she means the outsized demands often placed on women of color who are elevated to high positions and the historic demands on Harris in particular. Byrd says she hopes to see Harris taking a public lead on more issues going forward.

BYRD: If they are smart, they will not utilize her to quietly do a lot of his outreach work, but really loudly and powerfully use her to tell the stories of all of the reasons that this policy has to progress.

DETROW: But Harris' first attempt at campaigning for a policy priority hit some speed bumps. Harris granted a couple local TV interviews last week to drum up support for the Biden administration's nearly $2 trillion stimulus plan.

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HARRIS: So many people have been unemployed for almost a year at this point, hardworking folks who have lost their jobs through no fault of their own.

DETROW: Harris spoke to WSAZ in West Virginia, home to Senator Joe Manchin, a Democrat who's been more skeptical about the price tag of the plan and some of the items in it.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Interesting that the White House actually reached out to us for that interview.

DETROW: Manchin told the same station he didn't appreciate the subtle public pressure from his own party. The episode made it clear how much attention will be placed on every public move Harris makes. It was also a rough start to an area Harris wants to play a key role in - getting the stimulus bill passed and on President Biden's desk. Since then, Biden has held two Oval Office meetings with senators to discuss the bill. Both times, Harris was right next to him.

Scott Detrow, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.