What Does the Vice President Actually Do?
According to John Nance Garner, Franklin D. Roosevelt's first vice president, the vice-presidency “isn't worth a bucket of warm [spit].” (He actually used a ruder word than spit, but it was bowlderized by reporters). And indeed, for most of American history, the office of the vice-president really wasn't much more than an afterthought -- there have been sixteen non-consecutive occasions throughout American history when the office has been vacant.
The office was created by the founders largely to prevent deadlocked presidential elections (before 1804, the runner-up in presidential elections became vice-president). All the Constitution has to say about the office is that the vice-president serves as the president of the Senate and casts tie-breaking votes in that body, and that the vice-president “assumes the powers and duties” of the president should he/she die or become incapacitated (of the forty-seven vice presidents, nine have become president due to the death or resignation of the sitting president).
It's for this reason that perhaps the most important function of the vice-president is that he/she is a single heartbeat away from the Oval Office.
Still, until quite recently, the vice presidency has been a place of a sort of political exile, as vice presidents were (and still are) often political rivals of the president under whom they served, but who were included on the ticket for political reasons.
Lyndon B. Johnson, John F. Kennedy's vice president who ended up becoming president himself upon Kennedy's assassination, is a perfect example. Johnson and Kennedy had butt heads in the Senate, where Kennedy was a junior senator and Johnson was the Senate Majority Leader, and had both vied for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1960. In office, Kennedy excluded Johnson from major decision-making.
Harry S. Truman provides another case-in-point: selected as Franklin Roosevelt's running mate in 1944 because the then-current vice president, Henry Wallace, was viewed as too left-wing by FDR and his advisors, Truman met with Roosevelt all of twice before the latter's death. Truman wasn't even informed of the Manhattan Project, which developed the atomic bomb, until after he became president.
Nevertheless, since the 1970s, the vice president has taken an increasingly prominent and important part in the U.S. government and politics (compared to such nonentities like Daniel D. Tompkins, James Monroe's vice president, Truman and Johnson are giants -- though admittedly it helps that they actually became president).
It was Walter Mondale, Jimmy Carter's vice president from 1977-1981, who established the contours of the modern office. Far from just sitting in a room waiting for the president's pulse to stop, Mondale pioneered the “activist vice president,” serving as a close advisor and point man for the president, a role which has continued to this day.
But indisputably, the most prominent and powerful vice president in American history was Dick Cheney, who served under George W. Bush. A veteran politician and former secretary of defense under the first President Bush, Cheney wielded huge influence over the administration's foreign policy, including the decision to invade Iraq. Though he was not, as was often claimed by liberal critics, a “shadow president” who was really the man in charge in the Oval Office, he was consistently the person who had the president's ear and, working with political allies within the administration like Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, was able to outmaneuver his foreign-policy opponents within the administration, like Secretary of State Colin Powell.
The incumbent vice president, Joe Biden, has taken a much more Mondalian than Cheneyite approach to the office. President Obama has compared his role in the administration to a basketball player “who does a bunch of things that don’t show up in the stat sheet,” often playing devil's advocate within the administration to keep other decision-makers on their toes.
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