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The Power of the Vice Presidency

The job isn’t what it used to be.

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“I am Vice President. In this I am nothing, but I may be everything” – John Adams

The role of the vice president as part of the executive branch of government couldn’t be more explicit; it is the second-highest position of the executive branch and the first individual in the presidential line of succession. The vice president also serves as a member of the legislative branch, considered the president of the Senate, and holds power to cast tie-breaking votes when necessary. Interestingly enough, the legislative power of the vice president is more significant than the power granted as a member of the executive branch, resulting in many vice presidents hating their positions over time.

John Adams, the first vice president of the United States of America, is known for his hatred of the vice presidency, calling it the “most insignificant office” invented. Throughout most of the nation’s history, vice presidents and other Cabinet members have mocked the significance of the position, likening the job to a political dead end. Nowadays, the role of the vice president has changed immensely, with many observers taking note of the immense power granted to recent vice presidents and the importance they serve towards presidential campaigns.

The role of the vice president has become more niche in recent times. Most presidential candidates pick their seconds in command intending to attract support outside of their main political base. President Obama chose Joe Biden as his vice president. He sought an long-time Democrat to reassure Democratic Party voters that Biden’s seniority and ability to compromise would cover for his own youth and inexperience.

Obama’s opponent John McCain attempted to court both women and traditional Republican voters by requesting Sarah Palin, the governor of Alaska, to be his vice president instead of Joe Lieberman, his longtime friend and an Independent who had upset Republicans in the past and might dissuade them from supporting McCain.

Joe Biden and Kamala Harris

More recently, President Trump picked Mike Pence, governor of Indiana, in an attempt to rally mainstream conservatives to his campaign and also secure the vote of evangelical Christians.

As another example, many see Joe Biden’s choice of Kamala Harris as an attempt to contrast his elderly, moderate appeal with her youthful, progressive image. While vice presidents have become increasingly important for their strategic value to presidential campaigns, their responsibilities do not end there.

Vice presidents today are typically picked to serve specific purposes in presidential administrations. Pence was appointed by the president to lead the response to the COVID-19 pandemic, a job unrelated to his experience, but placed in his hands regardless. Dick Cheney, vice president to President Bush from 2001 to 2009, is widely considered to have been the most powerful vice president in American history. In a way, Cheney had many of the responsibilities of the White House Chief of Staff, being granted the power to control any outside information that might influence the president as well as make executive decisions on his own. Joe Biden was meant to play a significant part in the Obama administration’s foreign policy agenda due to his experience. However, his foreign policy goals would ultimately come second to those of Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, who served as secretaries of state under Obama.

The role of the vice president has changed immensely since its creation. Initially viewed as a dull, unimportant job, the vice president has been granted more and more power and responsibility like most of the executive branch of government.

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Jose Backer, General Assignment Reporter, is a graduate of St. Michael's College and is currently pursuing a Master's Degree in Political Science. Born and raised in Southern California, he currently resides in the Pasadena area.

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