Throughout much of its history the office of the vice president has held little esteem and been the subject of much ridicule. Benjamin Franklin once quipped that the vice president should be addressed as “Your Superfluous Excellency.” Daniel Webster, when offered the vice-presidential slot on the 1848 Whig Party ticket, declined, saying, “I do not propose to be buried until I am dead.”
Constitutionally, the vice presidency was born weak and has not grown much stronger. But lost in all the laughter is an appreciation of the importance—throughout U.S. history and growing in recent years—of the position the vice presidency occupies in the U.S. political system.
The vice presidency is most significant when it provides a successor to the president. Nine vice presidents, more than one-fifth of those who have served in the office, have become president through succession when the incumbent chief executive died or resigned. Collectively, they led the nation for forty-two years.
Recognition of the importance of having a vice president standing by at all times prompted Congress in 1965 to pass the Twenty-fifth Amendment, which established a procedure for filling vice-presidential vacancies. The amendment, ratified by the states in 1967, stated unequivocally the right of the vice president, in the event of a presidential death, resignation, or impeachment, to serve as president for the unexpired balance of the term. It also established a mechanism by which the vice president could take over if the president were disabled.
In addition to the role of presidential successor, the vice presidency also serves as an important political springboard. Although only five vice presidents actually have been elected president—George H. W. Bush was the first one since 1836 to be elected directly to the presidency—the modern vice president is not only a presumptive candidate for president but the presumptive front-runner as well. Seventeen of twenty-two twentieth-century vice presidents went on to seek the presidency.
Recent changes in the vice presidency have made the office more substantial. The vice presidency has become “institutionalized” so that it is organizationally larger and more complex than in the past. Certain kinds of vice-presidential activities now are taken for granted, including regular private meetings with the president and attendance at many other important presidential meetings, membership on the National Security Council, full national security briefings, frequent diplomatic missions, public advocacy of the president's leadership and programs, and party leadership.
The vice presidency was invented late in the Constitutional Convention, not because the delegates saw any need for such an office, but rather as a means of perfecting the arrangements they had made for presidential election and succession and, to some degree, for Senate leadership. The office's only ongoing responsibility was to preside over the Senate, casting tie-breaking votes.
The most important duty of the vice president was to stand by as successor to the presidency in the event of the president's death, impeachment, resignation, or “inability to discharge the Powers and Duties” of the office. But the Constitution was vague about what all that meant or how succession would be carried out. Moreover, by giving the office both legislative and executive responsibilities, the Constitution deprived the vice presidency of solid moorings in either Congress or the presidency.
John Adams was the first person to be elected vice president. Despite Adams's views to the contrary, the vice presidency was at a peak of influence when he served. Because the Senate was small and still relatively unorganized, Adams was able to cast twenty-nine tie-breaking votes (still the record) and also to guide its agenda and intervene in debate. Adams was respected and sometimes consulted on diplomatic and other matters by President George Washington.
Adams was elected president in 1796, and Thomas Jefferson, who gained the second highest number of electoral votes, was elected vice president. Because they were from opposing parties—Federalist and Democratic-Republican, respectively—there was little interaction between the two, except on formal occasions.
To avoid such split-party administrations, in the 1800 election each party nominated a complete ticket, instructing its electors to cast their two votes for its presidential and vice-presidential candidates. Jefferson and his running mate, Aaron Burr, ended up with an equal number of votes for president. The election was thrown into the House of Representatives, which eventually chose Jefferson to be president and Burr to be vice president.
The 1800 election highlighted not only problems in the election process but also what was to become an enduring characteristic of the vice presidency: its use as a device for balancing the ticket. Burr, a New Yorker, had been placed on his party's ticket with Jefferson of Virginia to balance the Virginia and New York wings of the party.
In 1804 motions were made in Congress to abolish the vice presidency rather than continue it in a form degraded from its original constitutional status as the position awarded to the second most qualified person to be president. Instead, the Twelfth Amendment was added to the Constitution, providing for separate votes for president and vice president.
The development of political parties and the enactment of the Twelfth Amendment sent an already constitutionally weak vice presidency into a tailspin that lasted until the end of the nineteenth century.
Party leaders, not presidential candidates—who often were not even present at national nominating conventions and who, if present, were expected to be seen and not heard—chose the nominees for vice president. This did little to foster trust or respect between the two once they were in office.
This tension was aggravated by the criteria that party leaders applied to vice-presidential selection. The nominee had to placate the region or faction of the party that had been most dissatisfied with the presidential nomination, a situation that led to numerous New York–Virginia, North-South, Stalwart-Progressive, and other such pairings. The nominee frequently was expected to carry a swing state in the general election where the presidential candidate was not popular.
Ticket balancing placed such a stigma on the office that many politicians were unwilling to accept a nomination. Those who did and were elected found that fresh political problems four years later invariably led party leaders to balance the ticket differently. No first-term vice president in the nineteenth century ever was renominated for a second term by a party convention. Nor, after Vice President Martin Van Buren in 1836, was any nineteenth-century vice president elected or even nominated for president.
In addition, the vice president's role as Senate leader, which most vice presidents had spent considerable time performing, became more ceremonial as the Senate grew more organized and took greater charge of its own affairs.
Not surprisingly, then, the nineteenth-century vice presidents made up a virtual rogues' gallery of personal and political failures. Because the office was so unappealing, an unusual number of the politicians who could be induced to run for vice president were old and in bad health (six died in office). Some became embroiled in financial scandals, others in personal scandals. Some even publicly expressed their dislike for the president.
Naturally, there were exceptions. Some presidents often sought the informal advice of their vice presidents and used them as effective advocates of administration policy in the Senate. Even in those administrations, however, the vice president was not invited to cabinet meetings or entrusted with important tasks.
In one area of vice-presidential responsibility, the nineteenth century witnessed a giant step forward: presidential succession. After the death of William Henry Harrison in 1841, Vice President John Tyler set the precedent of a vice president assuming not only the office of president but also the balance of the president's term.
The rise of national news media (specifically mass-circulation magazines and newspaper wire services), a new style of active presidential campaigning, and changes in the vice-presidential nominating process enhanced the status of the vice presidency during the first half of the twentieth century.
In 1900 Republican Theodore Roosevelt became the first vice-presidential candidate to campaign vigorously nationwide. The national reputation that Roosevelt gained through travel and the media stood him in good stead when he succeeded to the presidency after President William McKinley was assassinated in 1901. Unlike his predecessors who had assumed the presidency upon the death of the incumbent, Roosevelt was nominated by his party to run for a full term as president in 1904.
In another change from nineteenth-century practice, beginning in 1912 every first-term vice president who had sought a second term has been nominated for reelection (as of 2011).
The enhanced political status of the vice presidency soon began to make it more attractive to at least some able and experienced political leaders. With somewhat more talent to offer, some vice presidents were given greater responsibilities by the presidents they served.
Several presidents included their vice presidents in cabinet meetings, as has every president since Franklin D. Roosevelt. In addition, Franklin Roosevelt's first vice president, John Nance Garner, served as an important liaison from the president to Congress. It was Garner's suggestion that led to the practice, which later presidents followed, of meeting weekly with congressional leaders. Garner also undertook a goodwill mission to Mexico at Roosevelt's request, another innovation that virtually all later administrations continued. Roosevelt and Garner eventually had a falling-out, however, which set the stage for Roosevelt to take control of the choice of his running mate in 1940.
The involvement of the vice presidency in executive branch activities continued to grow, as the vice president sat with the cabinet, advised the president, and traveled abroad as an administration emissary.
Yet the office remained fundamentally weak, as was all too obvious when Vice President Harry S. Truman was thrust into the presidency after Roosevelt's death in 1945. Truman was at best dimly aware of the existence of the atomic bomb, the Allies' plans for the post–World War II world, and the serious deterioration of Roosevelt's health. He later said that in his eighty-two days as vice president he had seen the president perhaps twice outside of cabinet meetings.
Truman's lack of preparation, and the challenges he soon faced in dealing with the cold war and the nuclear weapons competition between the United States and the Soviet Union, heightened public concern that the vice presidency be occupied by leaders ready and able to step into the presidency at a moment's notice.
As a result, most modern presidential candidates have paid considerable attention to experience, ability, and political compatibility in selecting their running mates. Presidential nominees realize that voters now care more about competence and loyalty—a vice-presidential candidate's ability to succeed to the presidency efficiently and to carry on the departed president's policies faithfully—than about having all the regions of the country or factions of the party represented on the ticket.
Once in office, modern presidents also keep their vice presidents informed about matters of state. In 1949, at Truman's request, the vice president was made a statutory member of the national security council. Vice presidents also receive full national security briefings as a matter of course.
As a further means of reassuring the American people, most presidents now encourage the vice presidents to stay active and in the public eye. Vice presidents travel abroad, meet regularly with the cabinet, and serve to some extent as legislative liaison from the president to Congress. They serve as advocates of their administration's policies, leadership, and party.
Since the 1960s vice presidents have accumulated greater institutional resources to help them fulfill their more extensive duties. Lyndon B. Johnson, the vice president to John F. Kennedy, gained for the vice presidency an impressive suite of offices in what is now the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, adjacent to the White House. Spiro T. Agnew, Richard Nixon's vice president, won a line item in the executive budget, freeing vice presidents from their earlier dependence on Congress for office space and operating funds.
Even more significant institutional gains were made by Gerald R. Ford and Nelson A. Rockefeller, the two vice presidents who were appointed under the Twenty-fifth Amendment and whose agreements to serve were urgently required by their presidents for political reasons. As vice president, Ford persuaded President Richard Nixon to increase dramatically his budget for hiring staff. Rockefeller secured a weekly place on President Ford's calendar for a private meeting. He also increased the perquisites of the vice presidency, obtaining everything from a better airplane to serve as Air Force Two to an official residence—the Admiral's House at the Naval Observatory. He also called for the seal for the office to be redesigned. (The old seal showed an eagle at rest; the new one an eagle with its wings spread, with a claw full of arrows and a starburst at its head.)
Walter F. Mondale, Jimmy Carter's vice president, participated in the first nationally televised debate between vice-presidential candidates during the 1976 campaign. He won authorization to attend all presidential meetings, full access to the flow of papers to and from the president, and an office in the West Wing of the White House. More important, perhaps, Mondale demonstrated that the vice president could serve the president as a valued adviser on virtually all matters of politics and public policy.
George H. W. Bush, as Ronald Reagan's vice president; Dan Quayle, as Bush's vice president; and Al Gore, as Bill Clinton's vice president, benefited from many of the institutional gains in both role and resources that their recent predecessors had won. Richard B. Cheney, George W. Bush's vice president, appeared to exercise substantial clout in the White House, especially in matters involving energy policy and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Joseph Biden, a former chair of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations who served as vice president under Barack Obama, played an important role advising the president on matters related to foreign policy. Biden was also key in assisting the administration in negotiations with Congress. It is important to keep in mind that to a large extent the role and resources enjoyed by the vice president are delegated at the discretion of the president and can be revoked. The activities and influence of individual vice presidents continue to vary considerably from administration to administration.
The many roles that modern vice presidents perform can be grouped into four categories: constitutional, statutory, advisory, and representative.
The original Constitution assigned two roles to the vice president. One of these was to serve as president of the Senate, voting only to break ties. Modern vice presidents spend little time performing this role. The powers of the presiding officer are largely ceremonial, and tie votes are rare. George H. W. Bush cast seven tie-breaking votes in his eight years as vice president, but Quayle cast none. When the Senate is closely divided between parties, in eras such as the 1990s and early 2000s, though, the tie-breaking authority can still be significant. Gore broke ties on two measures that were crucial to the Clinton administration's economic agenda during his first year in office. When the Senate was deadlocked with fifty Republicans and fifty Democrats in January 2001, Cheney cast the votes that gave Republicans control of the Senate's leadership and committees.
The Constitution also states that the vice president will succeed to the presidency in the event of the president's death, resignation, removal, or disability. Nine vice presidents—John Tyler, Millard Fillmore, Andrew Johnson, Chester A. Arthur, Theodore Roosevelt, Calvin Coolidge, Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson, and Gerald Ford—have become president by succession.
Under the provisions of the Twenty-fifth Amendment, the vice president is the central figure in determining whether a president is disabled. Moreover, while a president is disabled, the vice president assumes the full powers and duties of the office as acting president. How this works is another matter. In 1981, after President Reagan was shot and taken into surgery, a move to consider whether to declare the president disabled and to transfer power to Vice President Bush was headed off by some presidential aides who were fearful of confusing the nation and making the president look weak. Bush himself remained silent.
In 1985 presidential power actually was transferred to Bush while Reagan was undergoing surgery. Eager not to offend the president or his aides with even the slightest hint of activity, Bush played tennis and chatted with friends at the vice-presidential residence during his eight hours as acting president. Twice, in 2002 and 2007, George W. Bush transferred presidential powers to Vice President Cheney before undergoing a colonoscopy. The president resumed power more than two hours later.
In contrast to the presidency, to which numerous responsibilities have been assigned by law, the vice presidency has only two statutory roles: member of the National Security Council (NSC) and member of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution. While the latter role is inconsequential, membership on the NSC seems important, but it is less so than meets the eye.
Few presidents have wanted to feel obliged to involve the vice president in important foreign policy deliberations. As a result, most have either called a limited number of NSC meetings or used them as forums to announce, rather than make, policy.
Modern vice presidents serve as advisers to the president, whether as a cabinet member, commission chair, or senior adviser.
A few of the earlier vice presidents and every vice president since Garner have attended cabinet meetings. For all its symbolic value, however, cabinet membership has seldom been a position of real influence for the vice president. One reason is that cabinet meetings themselves have become less important in recent years. In addition, most vice presidents have felt bound to remain virtually silent at such meetings, listening to the discussions of presidents, department heads, and others who are responsible for administering the executive branch.
Dwight Eisenhower was the first president to appoint a vice president to chair a presidential commission, a practice that most of his successors have followed. Far from being a boon to the vice presidency, most commission assignments have been burdensome. Typically, presidents have created commissions to symbolize their concern for an issue or constituency; they have named their vice presidents as chairs because the vice presidency is a visible and prestigious office and because they have wanted to convince the public that the vice president is actively involved in the business of government. Seldom, however, have presidents entrusted vice-presidential commissions with substantive powers and responsibilities. But there have been some exceptions. Quayle, for example, as chairman of the President's Council on Competitiveness, reportedly played an influential role in mediating disputes between government agencies and those objecting to government regulations. Gore chaired the National Performance Review Commission, an effort to “reinvent government” that, among other suggestions, proposed a reduction of 252,000 government jobs. (See also commissions, presidential.)
Most recent presidents have turned to their vice presidents for advice on matters about which they are knowledgeable or experienced. For example, Reagan made good use in foreign policy of George H. W. Bush's experience as director of the Central Intelligence Agency, ambassador to the United Nations, and chief U.S. diplomat in China. Bush in turn called on Quayle, a former member of the House and Senate, for advice on political and congressional strategy, as Clinton did with Gore. Indeed, during Clinton's first year in office Gore became one of his closest advisers. Cheney was a key adviser to George W. Bush on foreign policy and other issues. Joe Biden was also a trusted foreign policy adviser, in addition to his function in bargaining with Congress on behalf of President Obama.
In recent years presidents have had their vice presidents represent their administrations to a variety of constituencies.
Within the government, the modern vice president serves as a liaison from the president to Congress. Since 1933 thirteen of sixteen vice presidents have had experience as members of Congress, and seven of these served presidents who lacked legislative experience themselves. Vice presidents are frequently used to pass information and advice between Congress and the president, working in conjunction with the White House staff's team of legislative lobbyists. The vice president's suite in the Capitol building provides a convenient setting for such discussions and “head counts” for votes on pending legislation. (See also congress and the presidency.)
Garner was the first vice president to make an official trip abroad, and Nixon was the one who set the precedent of extensive vice-presidential travel. Many, perhaps most, special envoy assignments have been almost entirely symbolic in nature—the president simply wished to demonstrate goodwill toward a nation without having to undertake a trip personally. But sometimes the vice president has carried an important message to a foreign government, affirmed U.S. support for a beleaguered regime, or negotiated on a small diplomatic matter. Even relatively inconsequential trips are of political value to vice presidents, who gain more press coverage than usual while they are abroad and reinforce their image among voters as knowledgeable world leaders.
Modern vice presidents most frequently are seen in their role as defender of the president's policies to a variety of public audiences, including interest groups, the news media, state and local party organizations, and the general public. This role offers significant political benefits to the vice president who performs it well. It builds trust for the vice president with the president and the White House staff, endears the vice president to the party faithful, and increases the vice president's political visibility. Taken together, these benefits usually give the vice president the inside track for a subsequent presidential nomination.
The role of administration defender has its pitfalls, too. Vice presidents may appear to be narrow, divisive figures, especially when defending the administration involves attacking its critics, as Vice Presidents Nixon and Agnew did with great fervor. In addition, vice presidents may come to seem weak and parrot-like, always defending the ideas of another while submerging their own thoughts and expertise. Vice presidents also may feel compelled to defend policies with which they profoundly disagree.
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