This is a guest post by Joel K. Goldstein, Vincent C. Immel Professor of Law at Saint Louis University School of Law
The American vice presidency has had a complicated relationship with the concept of presidential power. The complication traces both to the dynamic nature of the vice presidency over time and its multi-faceted relationship to presidential power in virtually any period. The second office has changed dramatically in recent decades, especially during the last 40 years, as I recount in my new book, The White House Vice Presidency: The Path to Significance, Mondale to Biden (Kansas, 2016). Yet even that very positive development has not removed intricacies inherent in the relationship of the second office to presidential power.
The vice presidency was created for instrumental reasons related to filling the presidency so it could exercise its constitutional power. Fearing that parochial attachments would obstruct the election of a national president after George Washington, the framers gave each elector two votes for president with the constraint that no more than one vote could be cast for someone from the elector’s state. The existence of the vice presidency would, the farmers hoped, discourage strategic voting by attaching a consequence to the second votes. The office was an expedient to allow selection of a president, a prerequisite to the exercise of presidential power. But the design failed to anticipate the development of national political parties which disrupted the framers’ plan. Accordingly, the original electoral system lasted for only 15 years until the Twelfth Amendment to the Constitution installed the current arrangement by which electors vote separately for the two offices.
During that first decade and one-half and long beyond, the vice presidency was given two formal duties which reflected an anomalous relationship to presidential power. The vice president’s ongoing duty was to preside over the Senate and to break tie votes in that body. As such, the vice president, as president of the Senate, was a legislative officer and accordingly part of the system of separation of powers and checks and balances that the framers thought would prevent the concentration and abuse of power, presidential and otherwise. Yet the vice president was also made the first presidential successor who would discharge the “powers and duties” of the presidency in case the president died, resigned, was removed or was disabled. Whereas the vice president’s ongoing duty made him adverse to presidential power, his contingent role made him heir to those very powers. The former provided little power, the latter, all the executive power the Constitution conferred, a reality captured by the insight of the first vice president, John Adams, who said, “I am vice president. In this I am nothing. But I may be everything.”
The reality Adams described essentially lasted through the first 35 vice presidents, through and including the tenure of Alben Barkley (1949-1953). With few exceptions, vice presidents spent most of their professional time performing their duty to preside over the Senate. Seven of the 35 succeeded to the presidency following the death of their predecessor (two later vice presidents succeeded presidents who did not complete their terms due to death or resignation) and became “everything”; but while vice president, they and the others were closer to nothing, at least with respect to their relationship to presidential power.
The growth of presidential power associated with the New Deal and World War II changed the vice presidency, a development I described in my first book on the office, The Modern American Vice Presidency: The Transformation of a Political Institution (Princeton, 1982). That growth allowed presidential nominees to select their running mates beginning in the 1940s, thereby associating the two officers politically. It made the qualifications and preparation of the first successor more material especially given the advent of the nuclear age and the Cold War. The president was expected to respond to more domestic and international issues. These developments drew the vice president into the executive branch beginning especially with the vice presidency of Richard M. Nixon. Nixon and his next five successors, through and including Nelson A. Rockefeller (1974-1977), headed executive branch commissions, engaged in foreign travel and performed other political chores for the administrations.
Although these vice presidents moved from the legislative to the executive branch, as vice presidents they remained somewhat peripheral to presidential power. When President Dwight D. Eisenhower was asked at an August, 1960 press conference to name an idea Nixon had contributed to the administration, he famously responded, “If you give me a week, I might think of one. I don’t remember,” a devastating answer for Nixon whose presidential campaign messaging was predicated on the superior experience he had gained at Eisenhower’s side. More than a decade and one-half later, Rockefeller disparaged the second office as “simply standby equipment,” a description that suggested that it remained “nothing” or lose to it absent a succession.
Three institutional barriers kept these vice presidents from getting too close to presidential power even as they entered the executive branch. Presidents hesitated to give vice presidents significant duties since the vice president was the one subordinate the president could not remove until the term ended. The vice president’s successor function role inhibited close relations between the two as presidents suspected the motives and loyalty of someone whose ambitions would be realized by their own demise. Finally, presidents lacked a vision for how to make the vice president significant.
The vice presidency made its most significant institutional advance during the vice presidency of Walter F. Mondale (1977-1981) as the office moved to the center of the presidency. It did so, in part, because Mondale was able to circumvent or remove the barriers that had kept earlier vice presidents separate from presidential power. In essence, Mondale proposed, and President Jimmy Carter embraced, a new vision of the vice president as a close presidential adviser and trouble-shooter who would have no ongoing portfolio. Carter, who was disposed to elevating the office, gave Mondale the resources to make success possible—regular and extensive access to Carter in private and group sessions, access to the information Carter received, staff support and involvement of Mondale’s staff in White House operations, and visible presidential support for Mondale, through word and deed. Carter gave Mondale a prize West Wing office symbolizing his importance and facilitating his involvement. This new vision and accompanying resources gave Mondale an ongoing role as part of Carter’s inner circle and as someone who could handle presidential level missions, at home and abroad.
The presence of a significant, ongoing role allowed Mondale to circumvent the barrier the contingent, successor role had presented. The new vision presented Mondale as part of the effort to make the Carter administration succeed, not as someone standing by to succeed the president. Avoidance of portfolios coupled with Mondale’s investment in Carter’s success and their mutual trust made the vice president’s possession of a fixed term a less imposing barrier.
The Mondale vice presidency succeeded even as Carter’s presidency was rejected in the 1980 election. It created a workable model for vice presidential contributions, what I have called the White House vice presidency, and expectations of vice-presidential involvement. Carter’s and Mondale’s successors, beginning with Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, adopted the Mondale model and this new institutional vision and its associated resources have now lasted for the last 40 years across six administrations, three from each major political party. To be sure, vice-presidential influence has varied and different vice presidents have emphasized different aspects of the job. And some have abandoned Mondale’s aversion to portfolios and have assumed some specific portfolios generally involving interdepartmental matters. Yet all have served as general presidential advisers and trouble-shooters with access and information.
This new institution makes the vice presidency a much more consequential office than it has been for most of American history. Yet it continues the office’s ambivalent relationship to presidential power even as it introduces entirely new considerations into the analysis. In an important sense, the White House vice presidency expands presidential capacity by helping presidents deal with an increasingly challenging international and domestic arena. The president needs help, not simply from staff assistants, but from high-level, politically attuned officers who can provide politically sensitive advice and handle assignments that need attention at the most senior levels. By empowering the vice president, the president creates a surrogate who can pinch hit for him in discharging highly significant matters.
The advising role of the White House vice presidency reflects the complicated relationship of the office to presidential power. The presence of the vice president as a senior presidential adviser, as the “last person in the room” in Joe Biden’s formulation, contributes to the exercise of presidential power by giving the president the counsel of a senior politician who largely shares his perspective and interests. That role also, in a sense, creates an additional informal check of sorts on presidential power. It can be used as a means to make certain the president has a full range of advice before making decisions as Mondale, George H.W. Bush and Biden among others did. It also can introduce someone in the inner circle who can tell the president things they do not want to hear and which others may shy away from saying. Here the vice president’s fixed term and stature provides some security that some others may not feel. Of course, vice presidents remain dependent on presidents but presidents now also rely on their first subordinate, to help achieve their political and governmental objectives.
The development of the White House vice presidency has benefitted vice presidents by relieving them from the drudgery and many of the associated frustrations of their office. Yet its greatest contribution has been enhancing the capacity of the presidency to respond to the demands it faces in a wise and effective manner.