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What is the Role of the Vice President?

created Jul 15, 2016 10:32 AM

Note:  The following article is excerpted from the July 2016 edition of Teach the Election, "Vice Presidents."  For the full issue (and all other issues), subscribe to the Teach the Election series.

by Shelley Brooks

During the first four elections in the newly created United States, the vice president (VP) was the candidate who won the second highest number of votes. This voting system preceded clear political parties, and resulted in the pairing of President John Adams with Thomas Jefferson as his VP in 1796, despite their considerably different governing philosophies. President Adams rarely consulted Jefferson during their four years in office. The 12th Amendment, passed in 1804, addressed the fact that distinct political parties had developed and were shaping the elections and presidential decision-making. Per the 12th Amendment, the Electoral College must vote separately for the president and vice president so as not to bring two rivals into office together.

So, what are the duties of the vice president? Have these duties changed over time?
Initially, the role of the VP was to be a stand-in in case of the death or incapacity of the president. The Constitution gives an additional duty to the VP, which is to serve as the tie-breaking vote in the U.S. Senate. Otherwise, there are no actual terms of office that the VP fills. The office has therefore had the reputation as being trivial or unimportant, and a frustrating place to be for those who seek influence. John Adams, as the first VP, famously said when taking this office: “In this I am nothing. But I may be everything.” Of course, Adams was referring to the fact that out of the experience he might stand to gain access to the office of presidency. Adams did indeed go on to become president after Washington, and several more VPs have done the same. More often than not throughout the country’s history, a VP who takes office has done so because of the death of the president rather than from an actual nomination and election as president.

It was rare throughout the nineteenth and into the twentieth centuries for the presidential nominee to choose his running mate. Most often, party leaders decided who they believed to be the most electable, or most politically viable, running mate. Presidents Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin Roosevelt stand out in this era for insisting on particular running mates for at least one of their terms. Even so, it wasn not until the late twentieth century that VPs began to have a clearly recognized role to play in the White House. President Richard Nixon, elected in 1968, was the first to give his VP, Spiro Agnew, an office in the White House, from which Agnew could provide regular advising duties. Presidents Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama have provided similar room for VP input in decisions of the State.

It has become increasingly common for the VP to travel the world and country to represent the administration and its policies and agenda. Vice President Biden, for instance, has conducted official business in multiple states and in all regions of the world, flying to dozens of countries where there are political issues of importance to the United States. While still lacking much in terms of Constitutional powers, the VP is an important figure both domestically and internationally who helps set the tone for the president’s administration. The extent to which the VP has exhibited competence, integrity, and dedication to the job and country has benefited or handicapped many a president.

Photo Credit:“Vice President Alben Barkley showing Prime Minister Ali Khan the Vice Presidential seal, 1950” Courtesy of the Truman Library, Photographs; Access number 66-8559

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