This week, on Martin Luther King Day, Democratic California Sen. Kamala Harris announced that she will run for president in 2020. Almost immediately, headlines appeared declaring her the “female Barack Obama.” Like many other prominent women, she is – wrongly and inaccurately to boot – best known as a derivative of a more-famous predecessor.
There are similarities between Harris and Obama, to be sure. Both are Democrats, both have a background in law, both have a mixed-race background. There is an obvious convenience to the comparison. It neatly captures the public imagination at a time when Harris is yet to be world famous, but is charismatic, on the rise and prepared to challenge President Donald Trump, while Obama’s name continues to conjure a nostalgic, anti-Trump emotion.
It makes superficial sense. But it’s also symptomatic of a lazy habit that infantilizes high-profile women in America and abroad, and skims over the personal details and unique circumstances that shaped them.
Kamala Harris is the first Indian-American woman to have a seat in the US Senate. She was also the first woman, black, Indian-American or South Asian, to serve as district attorney of San Francisco, and as California’s attorney general. The most famous instance of public sexism she faced before announcing her presidential bid occurred in 2013, when none other than Barack Obama called her the “best-looking attorney general.” Obama later apologized to Harris after the remark was widely criticized (rightly) as sexist.
The two are very different political beings. Obama, with some liberal moves such as reduced sentences for drug offenses aside, did not make prison reform a priority, and was against mass incarceration. But the prison system is a subject close to Harris’ heart.
Despite personal reservations, she promised to defend the death penalty in California as attorney general, and proved herself an often harsh prosecutor, favoring long periods of imprisonment. In other areas, Harris has positioned herself further to the left than the former President. Those only aware of her overlap with Obama might make assumptions about her attitudes elsewhere, which would turn out to be untrue.
Harris is far from the only female politician to receive this media treatment – and that treatment isn’t always limited to comparisons to more famous men (though admittedly that’s overwhelmingly the case when it comes to world leaders).
Take Theresa May. Coverage of the British Prime Minister is regularly peppered with references to Margaret Thatcher. Throughout her negotiations over the Brexit deal in Brussels, Belgium, in December, newspapers referred to May’s “handbag-wielding” “Maggie” moments – Thatcher’s handbag being the mythical weapon with which she would supposedly clobber her opposition.
Considering Margaret Thatcher was in favor of Europe, fought for Britain’s interests within the EU, and for Britain to strengthen its position as a member of the EU, this likeness is especially ironic.
Theresa May’s Brexit strategy has been to make determined noises while championing a cause – leaving the EU – she campaigned and voted against, and she consistently makes zero productive headway with it. Her predecessor David Cameron’s negotiation of the ultimately null EU reform deal in 2016 was far more Thatcheresque in its intention and execution (even if the referendum he called subsequently was not). Coverage of his doings, however, didn’t call him “Maggie” – or indeed, refer to other male PMs who went before him. When he acted in his own name, he was treated as such.
The fudging of political personalities can be derogatory in both directions, depending on individual sympathies. When Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer succeeded Angela Merkel as leader of Germany’s Christian Democratic Union last year, she noted the commentary describing her as a “mini Merkel,” or “Merkel 2.0.”
“I have read a lot about what I am and who I am,” she told her party. “Mini, a copy, simply ‘more of the same.’ Dear delegates, I stand before you as I am and as life made me, and I am proud of that.”
The attention paid to Kramp-Karrenbauer’s likeness to Merkel distracts from the future implications of her attitudes for the country, and indeed, Europe at large. Kramp-Karrenbauer is extremely conservative on same-sex marriage, and has likened it to incest in the past. Her stance on migration is also vastly stricter than Merkel’s, and she has made it clear she is keen to dial down the more liberal attitude exhibited by the party in the last decade.
While Merkel’s political career was catalyzed by the fall of the Berlin Wall and reunification, Kramp-Karrenbauer’s has been forged in the wake of Merkel’s. That by definition gives her an adapted frame of reference, which merits its own scrutiny.
Every politician – every person – is a product of their own time and place. In the coming months, it looks quite possible that Kamala Harris might win Obama’s endorsement of her bid for president.
If she does, the comparisons between the two are likely to reignite. As with May and Kramp-Karrenbauer, those watching would do better to pay attention to the political landscape Harris is working within now, rather than any nostalgic connotations. The president whose footsteps are most pertinent to Harris, the president who she will be measured against should she prevail against her fellow Democratic candidates, is Donald Trump.
If she finds herself competing with him, the very least Harris deserves, the very least the voting public deserves, is to be judged as an adult in her own right, running under her own name.