Dynamic duo | Michael Jansen - GulfToday

Dynamic duo

Michael Jansen

The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict.

The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict.


Joe Biden and Kamala Harris share a light moment.

Joe Biden and Kamala Harris are an odd couple. President-elect Biden is an old White gent who spent 26 years as a senator representing Delaware, the second smallest state in the Union, and eight years as vice president to Barack Obama, the first Black US president. Vice-president-elect Harris is a middle-aged, US-born Indo-Jamaican woman from California, the third largest and most populous state, who was elected to one term in the Senate after serving as Attorney General of California and District Attorney of San Francisco.

They are a generation apart in age and come from widely different backgrounds. Biden is 78 and she is 56.          

Biden traces his ancestry to Ireland. His great-great grandfathers called Bluett and Fitzpatrick were born in Ireland and emigrated to the US in the late 1840s and early 1850s. Eventually they settled in Scranton, Pennsylvania, where Joe Biden was born.  Biden is, by ethnicity, five-eighths Irish with an admix of French and English. His family moved to Wilmington, Delaware, where his previously unemployed father prospered as a used-car salesman, giving the family a middle-class style of life.  

As a boy Biden suffered from anti-Irish, anti-Catholic prejudice, prompting him to state repeatedly, during his campaign that rich folk like Donald Trump “look down their nose at Irish Catholics like me and people who don’t have money.” To lay claim to membership in the “working class,” Biden also harked back to his family’s struggles in Scranton.

His educational attainments are modest. He earned a BA degree at the University of Delaware and a law degree from Syracuse University, in New York state. He initially considered himself a Republican but became an independent before joining the Democratic party. He won election in 1972 as the junior Senator from Delaware in a campaign which focused on liberal issues: withdrawal from Vietnam, civil rights, equitable taxation, and health care.

Six weeks after the election his wife Neilia and baby daughter were killed in a traffic accident. Biden, 30, was left to raise his sons Beau and Hunter on his own until 1975 when he married his second wife, Jill, a teacher with a PhD who will become the first First Lady with a job outside the White House. Their daughter, Ashley Blazer, is a social worker in Delaware.

Biden is of the World War II generation which saw the US rise to the status of a global power after the deployment of US troops in the war against Nazi Germany and expansionist Japan. He grew up and took office in the Senate during the Cold War which pitted the US and its Western allies against the Soviet Union and its Eastern European empire. Biden’s global view has been fashioned by the past while his national stands have depended on where his constituents stood on issues. In the senate he strongly opposed busing Black children from poor Black neighbourhoods with inferior schools to better schools in White areas — an issue of contention with Harris during the Democratic party primary debates.

Harris’ mother Shymala Gopalan was a biologist from Chenai in Tamilnadu, India, who met and married Jamaican economist Donald Harris at the University of California, Berkley, a hub of the sixties counterculture. Kamala Harris was born in the mid-60s at a time of popular revolt and revulsion over US involvement in the Vietnam war. She grew up as the Black community was asserting itself, lived in a predominately Black neighbourhood, and, under the plan to desegregate schools, was bused to a largely White school. While a neighbour took her and her sister to a Black Baptist church — which she joined — her mother taught her daughters about Hinduism and took them on frequent visits to Chenai where Kamala grew close to her Indian family.

Her parents divorced when Harris was seven and her mother moved with the girls to Montreal for work when Kamala was 12. While at school, her best friend revealed she had been abused by her stepfather and Harris mother invited her to live with them. Harris world view has been shaped by her experiences in the Black community and by her early discovery of the exploitation of women and girls. Harris attended Howard University, a Black university in Washington, fixing her identity to that community although she is bi-racial. She studied law at the University of California at the Hastings College of Law and served as president of the Black Law Students Association.  

She served as deputy district attorney in Alameda County, honing her skills as a prosecutor, and rose to become district attorney in San Francisco, becoming the first coloured person to assume that office. She successfully prosecuted violent crime, formed a hate crimes unit, argued against the death penalty and formed a department to rehabilitate one-crime prisoners. In 2011, she was elected California’s attorney general, becoming the first woman and first Black and first Asian to serve in this post.  In 2014 she married fellow lawyer Douglas Emhoff and is stepmother to his two children.  In 2017 she was elected to the US Senate. She will resign her seat before taking office as the first woman, Black and Asian US vice president.

Both Biden and Harris are portrayed as “moderate” or “centrist” Democrats although both have generally advocated liberal domestic policies during their careers. They are, however, being pushed not only by the left-wing of their party but also by circumstances to join battle against Covid-19, expand and upgrade public health care; reform and reduce the cost of education; and increase taxes on the richest 10 per cent which owns 70 per cent of the country’s wealth. Biden and Harris will encounter fierce opposition from Republicans in both the House and Senate.

Harris is not Biden’s first Black partner. Barack Obama was and, he like Harris identifies as Black although he is biracial as his mother was White and his father African from Kenya. Biden was chosen by Obama, a first term junior Senator, because of his long experience in the Senate.
Harris, a first term Senator, was selected by Biden because she is an energetic younger woman of colour who campaigned for the presidency in the Democratic party primary and made a good initial showing. Since Biden is unlikely to stand for a second term in 2024 due to his age, she may be groomed for the presidency. If she is granted wide responsibilities as vice president and with luck, she could become the first woman and first Asian to become US president.

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