Vice Presidency

The powers of the VP described in the constitution are modest. The country's founders saw it as a backstop measure. The VP would be a kind of president-in-waiting, should the president die or become disabled. But the founders concluded that the officeholder would be short on duties, or as one constitutional convention delegate noted "without employment." So they devised one extra role, to serve as the president of the Senate with just one task—cast the final tie-breaking vote.

The the influence of the vice president depends solely on how much power the president allows the holder. Donald Trump tended to demand subservience. Hence, Mike Pence lacked both the status and clear-cut role of his immediate predecessors. Tim Alberta (2019) revealed that Pence was nicknamed ‘the Bobblehead’ by Republicans on Capitol Hill for his solemn nodding routine whenever Trump spoke. In contrast, President Joe Biden has shown that he will delegate considerable powers to his vice president, Kamala Harris, putting her in charge in March 2021 of leading the White House effort to tackle the migration challenge at the US southern border. Biden was unequivocal in his faith in Harris: ‘When she speaks, she speaks for me... I can think of nobody better qualified to do this.’

However, its recent history has been one of steadily increasing influence, markedly so in the second half of the twentieth century. The reasons for this include the following:

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After reports came out suggesting the vice-president was being underused. Jonathan Freedland and Lauren Gambino discuss the various rumours shrouding Biden and Harris’ relationship.

Dick Cheney was one of the most powerful Vice Presidents in modern times. He was instrumental in guiding Bush's foreign policy, particularly after 9/11. He also promoted an idea of the presidency - unitary executive theory .

Clip form Vice-Cheney outlines his vision of the role.

  1. · The vast expansion in the reach of the federal government has made it almost essential for the president to be able to delegate some responsibility to the vice-president. The vice-president has become central to the administration, and he now is a member of the cabinet and has an office in the West Wing. Under President Clinton, for example, Al Gore was involved in promoting environmental initiatives and the greater use of new technology, and was responsible for the National Partnership for Reinventing Government, a flagship project to increase government efficiency.

  2. · The rise of partisan government in Congress has made it vital for the president to maintain or create party majorities in one or preferably both houses. Vice-presidents have frequently had more congressional experience than the president, and this has given them a key role, both in maintaining party loyalty in the existing Congress, and in fundraising and campaigning to increase party representation in the next.

  3. · Since the ratification of the 22nd Amendment in 1951, formally limiting the president to two terms, the vice-president has almost always been seen as the 'president in waiting'. No vice-president since then has lost a primary election to become their party's nominee, and four have gone on to be president, although only George H. W. Bush in 1988 actually won the presidential election immediately following his term as vice-president.

Formal powers

The formal powers allocated to the vice-president by the constitution and its amendments are relatively few:

  • to be the presiding officer of the Senate, although by convention the vice-president rarely attends; when he does attend, his presence can be used to signal the significance of the occasion to the administration, as when Joe Biden presided over the vote on gun control legislation in April 2013

  • break a tied vote in the Senate; the close party composition of the Senate in the George W. Bush years called Dick Cheney into action fairly frequently, and he cast seven casting votes at intervals throughout his tenure; Joe Biden is yet to cast one

  • to count and then announce the votes of the Electoral College; famously, Al Gore was required to announce his own defeat

  • to assume the office of president should the president die, resign or be otherwise removed

  • to act as president should the president make a written declaration to Congress that he is temporarily unable to carry out his duties

Mike Pence (Trump's VP)

As vice president, Pence has chaired the National Space Council since it was reestablished in June 2017. In February 2020, Pence was appointed chairman of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, which was established in response to the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States. Pence is seen as a very adept deputy, not least in leading the team deciding key appointments in the administration, and being a smooth communicator in media appearances.

For the most part, the vice-president has avoided generating too many headlines, though most recently he has been more in the spotlight in his role leading the White House coronavirus task force. Pence cast the tie-breaking vote to confirm Betsy DeVos as secretary of education, the first time a vice president has done so on a cabinet nomination. In February, DeVos was under immense scrutiny from Democrats and moderate Republicans. The billionaire heiress had zero education-related qualifications to run the department, but she did have a history of donating to far-right causes and championing the use of public money to fund schools that would "advance God's kingdom," in line with Pence's own views on education.

With Republicans Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) and Susan Collins (Maine) voting against DeVos' confirmation, the 50-50 vote went to Pence to break the tie. He voted to confirm her.

In a less conspicuous role, Mr Pence was also put in charge of US space policy with the renewed National Space Council.

Mr Pence's journey to the White House began in July 2016, when US President Donald Trump visited the then 57-year-old at his Indianapolis home and asked him to join the ticket.

Joe Biden (Obama's VP)

With his 30+ years of experience in the Senate, Joe Biden was as much a Washington insider as Dick Cheney, but in personality and image he presented very differently. Biden came across as far more affable and willing to please. As a sitting senator, he was a more conventional choice for the presidential ticket than Cheney had been and, as an Eastern senator and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he was a complement to Barack Obama.

Biden could not hope to (and probably did not want to) maintain the level of influence exerted by Cheney in President Bush's first term, and he had to some extent to redefine the role. Initially, the vice-president's tendency to garrulousness and fondness for straight-talking (on one trip he called a Wisconsin custard shop manager a 'smartass') made him seem something of a liability to the administration, and he remained the constant butt of the late-night comedians. Nevertheless, he has proved his usefulness in a variety of ways:

· His candour makes him seem more of a man of the people, and gives him a wider appeal than the sometimes rather cerebral and detached persona of the president.

· He has an unmatched range of contacts and understanding of Congress. The deepening of the partisan divide in Congress and the Republicans' apparent antipathy towards the president have made his skills and presence vital in the administration's negotiations with the Republican leadership, as when he and the Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell worked out the deal to avoid the 'fiscal cliff' in January 2013.

· On foreign policy in particular, he contributed vigorously to policy debate, and played an important role in discussion on the surge in Afghanistan as the principal sceptic of the policy of escalation favoured by the military.

· He is a tireless fundraiser for Democratic candidates, both at congressional and state level.

· He has been the champion of specific policy areas. President Obama appointed him to lead the gun violence task force in December 2012 after the Newtown shootings, which led to the announcement of the president's programme for tighter gun controls the following month.

Dick Cheney

The scope of the influence of Dick Cheney on the Bush administration has been well chronicled, and the label of the 'most powerful vice-president in history' is now accepted as the unchallenged orthodoxy. A number of factors contributed to this influence:

· The closeness of his relationship with the president: The vice-president had known the Bush family over decades, and was not, unlike Sarah Palin for example, a tactical addition to the ticket of someone who the presidential nominee had barely heard of.

· His experience in Washington: Cheney had been part of the Nixon administration, President Ford's chief of staff, a House representative for Wyoming for 10 years, and Defense Secretary under the first President Bush, and this range of experience, especially when contrasted with the new president's almost complete inexperience, made him indispensable.

· His extensive contacts throughout the bureaucracy and the EOP: The vice-president was part of a network of like-minded conservatives, including, at the top of the administration, Donald Rumsfeld as Defense Secretary and Paul Wolfowitz as his deputy.

· His lack of ambition: The vice-president's lack of presidential ambition meant that at no stage did he have to consider how either his decisions or the president's would play in a future election.

Whereas previous recent vice-presidents had tended to concentrate on a few specific areas of policy, Cheney ranged across the entire administration:

· He had been concerned about the erosion of presidential power after Watergate, and vigorously promoted its expansion, particularly after the attacks of September 2001.

· He personally promoted the use of unauthorised surveillance, robust interrogation techniques and the creation of military commissions to try prisoners.

· He was closely involved in administration plans to invade Iraq.

· He oversaw lists of potential Supreme Court nominees.

· He shaped and pushed through the Bush tax cuts, overcoming the resistance of both Alan Greenspan (who was worried, probably correctly, about the effects of tax cuts on the deficit) and the president himself to a policy of tax breaks for the wealthy.

· He constantly sought to relax or simply ignore environmental regulations to favour business, either through direct intervention or by the placing of sympathisers in key positions.

For all Cheney's usefulness influence diminished in the Bush second term. His ability to attract unfavourable media coverage, epitomised by the hunting accident of 2006, earned him the sobriquet of the 'Velcro Veep'. His claim, reported in 2007, that he was not required to lodge documents with the National Archive office because he was not part of the executive branch was seen by many commentators as bizarre, and reinforced an image of obsessive secrecy and unaccountability.

As an architect of the invasion of Iraq, Cheney's stock declined as the situation there failed to show significant improvement, and he suffered from the loss of allies such as Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz, and the rise of the influence of the State Department under Condoleezza Rice. The vice-president was sidelined in negotiations with North Korea over its nuclear weapons programme in 2007, which produced an agreement disapproved of by many conservatives (and, it was speculated, by Cheney as well) as rewarding North Korea. By his own account, he failed to persuade the president to launch a bombing mission on a suspected Syrian nuclear reactor in 2007.