Vice President Kamala Harris was fed up.
At a March event in Des Moines, Iowa, Harris listened to a shy nursing student recount the harrowing story of a pregnant patient seeking an abortion. The patient’s sudden health complications required the early end of their pregnancy in a state where Republican legislators once tried to prevent doctors from performing an abortion if a fetal heartbeat is detected.
Harris, visibly moved by the nurse’s story, left the meeting telling aides it was just another example of why no one – including Republicans racing to pass restrictive abortion bans across the country – knows what leads someone to get an abortion. Harris left the event railing at the stigma women face for doing so, a staffer told CNN.
The moment, following an event that echoed many she’s had around the country over the last year after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, served as a window into an effort that has been defined by a defiant message on an issue Democrats plan to put at the center of the 2024 election cycle.
The months that followed the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe vs. Wade saw Harris become the Biden administration’s foremost voice on reproductive rights, both in public events and behind the scenes in hours of policy discussions and internal White House deliberations. She led intense efforts to marshal outside allies, many of whom were staggered by the ruling itself – and pressing the Biden administration to do more in response. For Harris, it was a process that paired an intense exasperation with an equally strong level of determination.
But it was that intense level of passion that finally gave Harris something she’d been searching for during a turbulent and often roller-coaster-like start to her time as vice president: A clear and unambiguous issue on which she could lead.
That passionate and defiant message is one the vice president and her aides hope to project over the summer months, as they seek to keep reproductive rights prominent in the conscious of American voters.
“I do believe when you know what you stand for, you know what to fight for. We stand for the freedom of every American, including the freedom of every person everywhere to make decisions – about their own body, their own health care and their own doctor,” Harris said at an abortion rally in Washington, DC, Friday. “So we fight for reproductive rights and legislation that restores the protections of Roe v. Wade. And here’s the thing. The majority of Americans are with us, they agree.”
A shift from the West Wing
Harris tested her message at a keynote speech on reproductive rights Saturday in Charlotte, North Carolina, a place where White House officials have said is the “belly of the beast,” for the current abortion debate after the state’s Republican-led General Assembly banned most abortions after 12 weeks.
“Extremist Republicans in Congress have proposed to ban abortion nationwide. Nationwide. But I have news for them: We’re not having that. Americans believe in freedom. And we will not allow you to destroy our most basic rights and principles,” Harris said.
Aides anticipate Harris will continue traveling the country at a “steady cadence,” following Saturday’s high-profile speech, hosting official but campaign-like events to reach thousands on an issue that helped Democrats stave off a complete Republican takeover in Congress in 2022. Harris’ outreach, which some liken to a re-introduction tour, will come months before President Joe Biden is expected to hit the campaign trail in a concrete way.
And it comes amid a shift in strategy from the White House, people close to Harris say, since the vice president’s fraught first year, during which frustration from aides and allies reached a zenith following a series of Harris’ self-inflicted gaffes, Republicans attacks and a string of bad press.
“I have seen a real shift in the way that the White House is giving opportunity for the vice president to be her authentic self. And I think that’s very good for the vice president. I also think it’s very good for the country,” said Eleni Kounalakis, the lieutenant governor of California and a longtime friend to Harris. “It’s important that the American people really get to know her.”
More than a dozen Democrats who spoke to CNN – some under anonymity to speak candidly – describe a White House that is coming around to see the merits of Harris’ work on abortion, guns and democracy, after two years of direct appeals from Harris allies to Biden aides to take a more hands-on approach in shoring up Harris’ public standing.
The West Wing has now been intentional about showing Harris’ ability to lead, frequently sharing her work on official outreach channels that once mostly promoted Biden. The vice president also held a prominent role in Biden’s April reelection announcement video, where she appeared 13 times, a clear signal officials said, of Harris’ importance to the reelection effort.
“There’s been a change in understanding that how Kamala does is really important for Biden’s legacy,” a second person in communication with the West Wing told CNN. “I think a lot of the folks who have had some misgivings about Kamala have come to terms with that fact.”
Ron Klain, former Biden chief of staff and an early Harris advocate inside the West Wing, disagreed that the level of support from the White House for the vice president has changed.
“I always believed that when the public got enough chance to see her, her coverage would get better,” Klain told CNN in an interview, touting the ways the White House has tried to support Harris and her platform. “And so, I think the support for us always been there in the White House. I think finally, the coverage is reflecting what a great job she’s been doing since day one.”
CNN has asked the West Wing and the vice president’s office for comment on this story.
Biden staff privately tout Harris’ inclusion in his announcing video as another example of her elevated role, noting that then-vice president Biden did not appear in Obama’s 2012 announcement clip. Even still, a source familiar with the rollout told CNN, Harris was not personally invited to film for the video, instead the campaign opted to use old footage and still photos of the vice president.
Many close to the vice president feel the intervention to pull Harris more into the fold could not have come fast enough as more Americans grow concerned about Biden’s age and health. The vice president’s place as only a heartbeat away from the Oval Office takes on new weight, some say, when the current commander in chief is only months away from his 81st birthday and seeking four more years. Republicans, including many low-polling GOP nominees, have already begun to test campaign messaging that it would be Harris who served the majority of a possible second term for the Biden-Harris administration.
In the face of those efforts, the White House has worked to show that the two leaders are in fact a team, hoping in part to reassure Americans who question Biden’s fortitude, one source familiar with the White House dynamic told CNN.
“A rising tide lifts all boats,” the source told CNN. “Her boat was the one sinking. And if no one helps her, she’s gonna drag everyone down. They recognize that.”
But others close to Harris see it as the West Wing “shaping a narrative that helps them both win.” And they credit the vice president with using her “own voice” to step into a leadership role and prove credible in areas Americans deem important.
The vice president and her staff all leaned into abortion heavily last year and Biden appointed her as lead. And Harris was supported by a recently shaken up staff, including a new chief of staff, deputy chief of staff, senior communications adviser and press secretary all known to and favored by the West Wing. Those new faces helped stabilize the office, helping Harris hit her stride.
The shift in posture, many close to the White House say, has also been helped by one of Biden’s closest advisers, Anita Dunn.
An advocate of Harris’ since then-presumptive nominee Biden’s search to find a running mate in 2020, Dunn has more recently helped lift Harris’ profile among West Wing staffers and tamp down on anonymous critics coming from both within the White House and the larger Democratic Party. Communications director Ben LaBolt and chief of staff Jeff Zients have also been identified by allies as supportive to the vice president’s narrative.
Harris’ case gets a boost
Harris diehards often mention two sets of favorable internal polling done in early 2023 as evidence of her importance to Biden’s reelection effort. The first is a poll from a Democratic firm that tests Harris’ messaging on abortion, voting rights and on gun safety. A source who has seen it told CNN it shows Harris “moves voters to [Biden] that don’t start with him.”
The second poll, a separate Democrat relayed to CNN, shows Harris with higher favorability than Biden with young people and Black voters. The latter group has consistently been a bulwark for Biden.
“You look at the Democratic Party and you see a lot of people who, quite frankly, are generations away from these younger, diverse voters that are central, all except for the vice president,” said Cornell Belcher, who has conducted polls for several groups focused on Black voters. “The bridge to relatability and connection is shorter with her than almost any other major character in democratic politics right now.”
Allies say polls favorable to Harris’ could be one factor into the shift toward support from the West Wing. Another is the vice president’s team, which Biden officials now view as a more stable and competent version than those who first joined her office.
Looking forward to 2024, a Biden campaign official identified Georgia, an important battleground state that helped propel Biden to the presidency in 2020, as a state among many Harris will visit often.
“They know that she does really well with base voters for Democrats, right? Voters of color and women in general and young voters. So they’re gonna put her in front of that,” a source with knowledge of campaign dynamics told CNN.
Fundraisers will also be an important part of the equation. Already, Harris held the second most fundraisers for the Biden Victory Fund, Biden’s joint fundraising committee, and is expected to do more this month as the campaign looks to scoop up cash before the fundraising quarter ends on June 30.
Delaware Democratic Sen. Chris Coons, a longtime Biden ally, said Harris was “relaxed” and “engaging” during the campaign’s inaugural donors meeting, working the tables in the nation’s capital during an April weekend after Biden announced he would run for reelection.
“It was clear she was having fun,” Coons, the Biden campaign’s national-co chair, told CNN. “The president and vice president cannot both be bouncing around the country doing fundraisers all the time. But for the vice president to be warm, engaging, casual, to clearly to convey the sense that she wants to linger and take a selfie with you and ask about your kids. Rather than, you know, on a Zoom screen. It’s a huge change and a very positive one.”
But even donors with loyalty to the vice president have complained to top Biden officials about the lack of perceived support for Harris since the administration came into power. Those donors say they have called on top Biden officials to treat Harris’ vice presidency with more care than her predecessors in acknowledgment of her historic role.
But those with concerns will now have to look no further than the powerful political action committee that helps elect women, Emily’s List, to provide an offensive firewall of support to Harris for the upcoming election. Emily’s List President Laphonza Butler, a longtime supporter of the vice president, said the group would spend tens of millions of dollars to improve Harris’ image.
“We want to make sure that more people get to know the work of the vice president, what her leadership has brought to this administration, what her presence means to voters across the country,” Butler told CNN in an interview. “For us it’s really about telling an offensive story and reminding people just how much of a fighter she is for women and children in particular, and for further work of the administration in general.”
The Biden campaign also announced that Sheila Nix, a longtime Biden aide, will serve as the vice president’s chief of staff on the reelection campaign, akin to her own personal campaign manager. The early move to put her in place, a campaign official told CNN, represents the elevated role Harris will have in all 2024 endeavors. Nix served as a senior adviser for Harris after she was named as Biden’s running mate in 2020.
Harris ready to double down on abortion rights
There is one statistic, aides say, that continues to haunt Harris on abortion: The 10 states with the worst maternal mortality rates have passed or tried to pass abortion bans.
Hearing that in recent weeks, one staffer said, led Harris to want to double down on calling out “the hypocrisy of leaders who say they are pro-life and advocate for the restriction of reproductive rights while at the same time take no action to address maternal health.”
It’s a feeling that has helped shape Harris’ Saturday message, advising staff to step-up language to illustrate the clear contrast between both parties.
“Over the past 365 days, the women of our nation have suffered under the consequences of these laws. In addition to the taking of rights, these laws have created chaos, confusion, and fear,” Harris said Saturday.
Aides view her abortion work as in its third phase of existence.
The first was a “fact-finding mode,” in which Harris traveled the country, holding dozens of roundtables with state legislators and stakeholders to better understand how the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision would affect individual communities.
Dr. Todd Ivey, a Texas obstetrician and gynecologist who has met with Harris repeatedly over the last year, said in those discussions, “She asked what are some of the things that we’re seeing on the ground.”
Ivey said he spoke with Harris about difficulties for patients to travel and other setbacks. “She went on to address those things immediately,” Ivey said.
The second phase added in moderated (by a friendly host) panels where she could distill some of what she learned to small- and medium-sized crowds while still holding roundtables to learn. The third phase of this effort is expected to see Harris taking her findings directly to the American people in a rallying cry – outreach focused in part on young people.
Harris’ high-profile speech on Saturday will come after a full-court press from Biden, first lady Dr. Jill Biden and other Biden administration officials marking the one-year anniversary after Roe was struck down.
On Saturday, Biden pledged in a statement, “My Administration will continue to protect access to reproductive health care and call on Congress to restore the protections of Roe v. Wade in federal law once and for all.”
And on Friday, it was announced Harris and Biden have received endorsements from EMILYs List, NARAL Pro-Choice America, and Planned Parenthood Action Fund, three reproductive rights groups.
Biden also announced he would sign an executive order strengthening access to contraception by directing relevant agencies to consider guidance guaranteeing private health insurance under the Affordable Care Act covers all FDA-approved methods of contraception, in contrast to current guidance, which only mandates coverage for one contraceptive product per FDA category.
The president has evolved in his own delivery on abortion issues since the Dobbs decision. Abortion is a charged issue for a president who has witnessed up close the changing politics of abortion over the half-century span of his career. Long one of the Democratic Party’s most moderate voices on abortion, Biden has reckoned with personal qualms rooted in his Catholic faith.
That reckoning has showed in his ability to discuss reproductive care with more ease than before. And he’s been buoyed by the support of the first lady, who recently held an emotional conversation with women who shared their stories of how the Dobbs decision and subsequent state bans on abortion impacted their own medical care.
But there is no action Biden can take to restore the nationwide right to an abortion, empowering Harris’ final message that ultimately it is up to the American voter to change the makeup of legislators across the country to protect access to abortion.
This story has been updated with additional information.
CNN’s Phil Mattingly, Kevin Liptak, Betsy Klein and Arlette Saenz contributed to this report.