Assured Kamala Harris cuts a transformed figure in New Orleans – and carefully avoids any mention of Biden’s fitness for office | US elections 2024

The ideal understudy is talented but inconspicuous, prepared at all times to step into the top role and yet content to never do so.

In New Orleans, at the 30th annual Essence Festival of Culture, gone was the Kamala Harris of the drab brown, chair-matching suit and the halting, technical commentary about American policy needs. That was the Harris who spoke here in 2019, then a Democratic presidential primary contender trailed by fewer than 10 reporters.

Instead, on Saturday, Harris – dressed in a bright teal suit and tailed by a press contingent which had expanded to more than four times its previous size – spoke to a standing-room-only crowd in a room equipped to seat more than 500 people.

In what was billed as an on-stage conversation with Essence CEO Caroline Wanga, Harris confidently offered a blend of standard campaign-season talk – a recitation of the Biden-Harris administration’s major policy accomplishments with dire warnings about the dangers posed by a possible second Trump term and the critical importance of the choice that voters will face in just 122 days – blended with the language of women’s empowerment.

To say that Harris assiduously avoided any mention of recent questions about Biden’s fitness for office would be an overstatement, and Wanga did not ask or seemingly make room for the issue gripping much of Washington. In the past week, the fallout of the president’s shaky debate performance on 27 June has manifested in calls for him to drop out of the race, with a handful of Democratic lawmakers joining the chorus. Many of those same critics are now hoping Harris might be the new nominee in November.

For those inclined to read tea leaves, there may well have been more there in New Orleans. Harris encouraged the audience to embrace ambition and the difficulty of cutting new, and even history-making, paths.

“I beseech you, don’t you ever hear something can’t be done,’ Harris said. “People in your life will tell you, though, it’s not your time. It’s not your turn. Nobody like you has done it before. Don’t you ever listen to that.

“I like to say, ‘I eat no for breakfast,’” she said.

Harris arrives for the global Black economic forum at the culture festival. Photograph: Michael DeMocker/Getty Images

Harris had been introduced as a woman “doing the heavy lifting”, “smart”, “tough”, and a “proven fighter for the backbone of this country”. Then she entered and exited to the sound of a Beyoncé-Kendrick Lamar collaboration, Freedom, at the point where Beyonce sings, “Singin’, freedom, freedom, Where are you? … Hey! I’ma keep running.”

While Biden has insisted he will remain in the race amid what he has described as a subset of Washington insiders and op-ed writers insisting he should step aside, Harris’s poll numbers have improved and her public speeches and commentary – once a much maligned element of her time on the national political stage – have become more assertive and assured.

Harris has spent recent months crisscrossing the country speaking about threats to reproductive rights, maternal mortality, economic opportunity and inclusion. And in New Orleans, Harris described the election as more important than “any in your lifetime”, adding that democracy may not survive a second Trump term. Trump, she said, was a convicted felon whom the supreme court had just granted immunity from prosecution.

Harris also spoke about an array of the administration’s efforts to resolve the problems that vex the lives of Americans, including many in the room: a cap on the price of insulin paid by those enrolled in Medicare; expanded access to public health insurance for low- to moderate-income women after giving birth, the period in which many fatal complications arise; and billions in student loan debt forgiven. When Harris called for those who had seen some of their student debt forgiven, hundreds of hands went up in the room.

“You got that because you voted in 2020,” Harris told the audience.

Harris with Democratic representative Maxine Waters (centre left, green jacket) and others at the New Orleans festival on Saturday. Photograph: Josh Brasted/FilmMagic

And, she said, there was work that remained such as reducing the cost of childcare for all Americans to no more than 7% of household income, and work on the cusp of being done. This included the administration’s efforts to remove medical debt from the calculus that generated credit scores and made it hard for some Americans to rent an apartment or purchase a car.

Leshelle Henderson, a nurse practitioner from Cleveland providing family medicine and psychiatric care, said she was trying to serve her community and a country in the midst of a mental health crisis. And she was working double time to pay off hundreds of thousands in student loans, none of which had been forgiven. She came to Essence Fest for fun but wanted to hear the vice-president speak about student loan forgiveness and what a second Biden-Harris administration would do for the economic fortunes of Black men and women.

That was before the event.

“I liked what I heard,” Henderson said. “I did, but want to hear more. Honestly, I think what we heard tonight is the next president of the United States. Isn’t that something?”

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