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Vice President, Almost President? 

Vice President, Almost President? 
 Amy Greene
American politics specialist and Adjunct Professor at Sciences Po

There are no corners in the Oval Office and yet, someone is often still hiding there. The role of vice president of the United States in modern-day politics requires a masterful combination of discretion and star power, serving presidential hopefuls against the backdrop of a perfectly rhythmed electoral calendar. In the second installment of our series, Amy Greene, American politics specialist and Adjunct at Sciences Po Paris, traces the evolution of the VP in modern US history, from overlooked deputy to power player. She reflects on the roles of the three most recent office-holders: Joe Biden, Mike Pence and current VP Kamala Harris.

Introduction: So Close, yet So Far Away

Often relegated to the footnotes of history, the American vice president has long confronted the paradox of being a single heartbeat from the presidency all the while exercising little power. Historically, the vice presidency was something offered to the runner-up rather than a political partnership actively sought and cultivated by the president. Prior to the 20th century, the office was not even part of the executive branch, but rather the legislative branch. The vice president's limited powers reflect a limited status, and his primary function is to preside over the Senate and cast the occasional tie-breaking vote.

The vice presidency only began to gain in substance after World War II when Harry S. Truman ascended to the presidency after the death of President Franklin Roosevelt in 1945. Truman acknowledged that he had been kept in the dark about wartime military strategy and consequently appointed his own vice president to the newly created National Security Council to ensure his familiarity with important security matters if ever called to lead. Later, Richard Nixon added to the dynamic by granting his VP more responsibility in foreign policy. At the time, he could certainly not have predicted that just a few years later he would have to resign, leaving his vice president to take the reins.

It was not until the election of Jimmy Carter in 1976 that the vice presidency became its own political center of gravity, a "full partnership" as Carter later said. Having seen the way his mentor Hubert Humphrey had been marginalized by President Lyndon Johnson, Walter Mondale negotiated directly with Carter to translate his considerable political experience into the role of respected partner. Carter accepted. Mondale went on to be a key player in signing the Camp David Accords of 1979, pursuing nuclear arms negotiations with the Soviets and drumming up support for the Panama Canal Treaty, thus establishing the blueprint for the modern vice presidency.


The vice president is now part of a larger electoral calculus. Vice presidents serve a political function, which can be understood along the electoral calendar: August, November and January, the three months that can make or break presidential hopefuls. The way a candidate experiences these three moments can explain their choice of vice president. 

Political conventions, during which the party designates its nominee, are generally held in August. That's when the organization will rally its members behind the ticket, heading into the final campaign push. Then in November, the main challenge is generating high voter turnout on Election Day to secure victory. Finally, in January when the president takes office, he most immediately needs expertise in building coalitions to deliver on campaign promises and govern effectively. Each of the three most recent vice presidents personifies one of these moments. And despite their vast diversity, they each embody a certain complementarity with the president they were called to serve.

August: Mike Pence to bridge the divides in the Republican Party, 2016

Following a contested primary, the Republican Party emerged fractured. Supporters of Donald Trump were energized and empowered by their candidate's successful hostile takeover of the GOP, while mainstream Republicans were stunned by Trump’s ability to eliminate both titans and rising stars of establishment politics (Jeb Bush, Mitt Romney, Marco Rubio). Respectable conservative politics were gone, replaced by a new brand of vitriol. 

Once Trump secured the nomination, it was clear he would not automatically benefit from widespread Republican unity.

Once Trump secured the nomination, it was clear he would not automatically benefit from widespread Republican unity. Though he had the "fortune" of running against Hillary Clinton, a longstanding target of Republicans, his norm-shattering antics and controversial past sufficed to generate skepticism within the ranks. Because Trump was not intent on running a general election campaign built around national unity, party unity would have to become his strategy. 

Trump needed to convince reluctant Republicans and evangelical voters that voting for him was not only acceptable after all, but also politically advantageous. Enter Mike Pence, former governor of Indiana. A highly devout evangelical Christian, Pence enjoys considerable popularity with right-wing Christians throughout the country. Preternaturally calm, Pence's temperament served as a counterpoint to the mercurial Trump. His unequivocally conservative positions appealed to both "Wall Street and values voters". With his social conservative bona fides and his credibility with the right-wing, with his political networks and experience with both campaigning and governing, Pence showed these voters that he could be the force to quietly advance an agenda they had been building for years. 

November: Kamala Harris to energize the multicultural future of the Democratic Party, 2020

Amid a nationwide racial reckoning in 2020 following the killing of George Floyd, Democratic leaders were faced with an urgent cultural pivot. Voters of color - especially Black women - had long been instrumental in delivering Democratic wins, as Khushbu Shah reports in her Guardian article In 2017, Black women delivered victory to Doug Jones in Alabama against a Trump-backed opponent, sending the first Alabama Democrat to the Senate in 25 years. Even though Hillary Clinton lost in 2016, a Pew poll showed that 98% of Black women voters reported voting for Clinton compared with only 45% of white women doing the same. In 2020, the media began to focus increasingly on the gulf between these voters’ influence and representation in the Democratic Party leadership. Joe Biden himself faced a reckoning. He was accused of having been aggressive and dismissive towards law professor Anita Hill, a Black woman who testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee (which Biden chaired) about her allegations of sexual harassment against then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas. By 2020, Biden knew that his past with Ms. Hill would be an issue.

As he secured the nomination, Biden made it public that he was considering four Black women to be his vice president. Among the contenders, Kamala Harris, who would eventually be his running mate, presented several qualities. A tenacious primary challenger with a dynamic and illustrious career, having quickly risen to her Senate seat after serving as California’s Attorney General, Harris was rooted in centrist Democratic politics much like Biden himself. In this particular political and cultural moment in American history, Harris' identity and background would also allow Biden to hint at a historic succession of power, presenting himself as "a bridge, not as anything else" to the young Democratic voters, hungry for change. 

In this particular political and cultural moment in American history, Harris' identity and background would also allow Biden to hint at a historic succession of power.

The third woman in history to win the vice-presidential nomination of a major party (after Geraldine Ferrero in 1984 and Sarah Palin in 2008), Harris is also the first woman, the first Black person and the first person of South Asian descent to be elected to the office of the Vice President. By picking Harris, Biden showed his commitment to a multicultural Democratic party, giving voters the chance to elect a new "historic first", four years after the Obama presidency while reaffirming his centrist vision of politics.

January: Joe Biden to shepherd in the newcomer, 2008

Soaring from relative obscurity, Barack Obama won the 2008 Democratic nomination over Hillary Rodham Clinton. The Clintons had spent decades building the Democratic Party by shaping its ideas, supporting a generation of new leaders and fundraising very successfully. With wide support from within the establishment, her victory was seen as inevitable, but voters chose to turn the page. Despite an acrimonious and intense primary campaign, Clinton lent her support to Obama immediately after his win and, in doing so, fostered party unity. With his electoral base in line behind him, Barack Obama could now focus on rallying diverse voters, beyond the Democratic party. . 

With the right VP pick, Obama could hit three crucial objectives: first, reassuring white working-class voters who had fled the left for George W. Bush, with whom Obama had difficulty connecting; second, enlisting the help of a Washington veteran who would afford him the connections and experience needed to govern from day one; and finally, partnering with a loyal ally whose personal ambition would not get in the way.

Biden's history of personal hardship and loss, giving him a highly empathetic approach to politics, was humanizing when contrasted with a cerebral Obama. 

Born into a working-class Irish Catholic family in Scranton, Pennsylvania, Joe Biden was intimately familiar with the challenges of disillusioned voters who felt discounted by politics and who may have been wary about a candidate with a "funny name", as Obama has said about himself. Biden's history of personal hardship and loss, giving him a highly empathetic approach to politics, was humanizing when contrasted with a cerebral Obama. Similarly, Biden's long-standing attachment to his home state of Delaware, where he often commuted into DC, conveyed a folksy relatability to complement a candidate whose cosmopolitan background looked unfamiliar, if not suspicious, to many voters. 

An ultimate insider, Biden had spent 36 years as US Senator, holding influential positions as Chair or Ranking Member of the Senate Foreign Relations and Judiciary Committees. His understanding of Congressional mechanics would be invaluable in building support for Obama’s legislative agenda, and his age meant that he would consider the vice presidency to be the "capstone" of an illustrious career rather than a "catapult" to another presidential run, as remarked by Glenn Thrush. Of course, Biden did go on to his own successful presidential bid but importantly, he sat out in 2016 at the urging of Obama who thought Hillary Clinton had the best chance of winning. Regardless, in 2009, Biden lent Obama the credibility to "make" 44 before he would do the same for Biden.

Once in Office: Negotiating a Complex Path

Once in power, the president and their vice president must navigate inherently complex dynamics, and even the closest relationships can be marked by tension. Ultimately, the practice of vice-presidential power is a balancing act: How to serve the president’s goals while avoiding getting saddled with the most intractable policy portfolios? How to carve out a unique political identity while also maintaining absolute loyalty to the president? 

In spite of early tensions and stumbles, Obama and Biden grew to have a close and impactful working relationship. Notably, Obama entrusted Biden with managing two especially sensitive missions: oversight of the Recovery Act and the 2010 handover of Iraq. On several occasions, both men characterized the other as his "brother". 

But after stepping into the Oval Office, Biden's own relationship with his VP is more ambiguous. More recently, Kamala Harris has struggled to settle into a clearly defined and coherent role at President Biden's side. After a months-long introduction to the American people during which Harris appeared almost systematically beside Biden, she has become less present over time. What emerges is the portrait of a vice president who lacks well-identified issue areas, whose actual role is unclear and whose perspectives are uncertain. 

Increasingly, Kamala Harris seems to represent a promise made but not kept by Biden. She was the up-and-coming woman who would embody the dynamism of a new generation and prove she would be capable of taking over for a president many thought unable to complete a full term. He was to represent wisdom and experience; she was to bring new ideas and the energy to carry them out.

Increasingly, Kamala Harris seems to represent a promise made but not kept by Biden. 

But Harris does not seem to be meeting the moment. At the term’s halfway point, Harris has failed to make a palpable impact on the disparate agenda she had been tasked with (migration at the southern border and relations with Northern Triangle countries, voting rights, global water security). Whether that blame is to be placed squarely on the shoulders of Harris, or to be shared with Biden, is a debate played out in the press by staffers of both figures. Nonetheless, Harris' silence on the political scene is as loud as the initial enthusiasm that her nomination generated. It remains to be seen if Harris will be able to overcome this absence to launch herself in the 2024 race should the opportunity arise.

Conclusion: Trump and Pence, Biden and Harris on the Road to 2024

If Donald Trump is certain that he will run for, and win, the Republican nomination in 2024, Mike Pence is quietly taking steps to set his own 2024 run in motion. By campaigning for candidates vilified by Trump and touting his role in making the administration's policy achievements happen, Pence is distancing himself from his former boss and betting that Republican voters will tire of Trump's antics in favor of a candidate who can deliver. His hopes may be high, but Trump has shown time and again his refusal to go away quietly.

Though Biden has repeatedly announced his intent to run for reelection in 2024, many Democratic insiders are skeptical that he will follow through. Biden may be sincere in claiming that he alone can defeat Trump in 2024 or he may be biding time to avoid galvanizing Republicans before the midterms, to avoid being written off as a lame duck with two years left. Progressive Democrats and voters are increasingly angry with a Biden they see as helpless and immobilized, unwilling to use his bully pulpit to fight an increasingly extreme Republican Party. For her part, Harris - who had been promised the torch just two years ago - faces an uphill battle. Faced with criticisms that her vice-presidential footprint has been insignificant, that she embodies Biden's immobilism, Harris is no longer the heir apparent. In the hypothesis that Biden does not run, Harris would likely face a primary challenger: from centrist Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg to progressive Senator Elizabeth Warren, a Democratic field in 2024 without Biden looks - from where we stand in 2022 - as wide open as ever.

The keys to an effective duo?

Even the most harmonious presidential duo will never be immune from tension and rivalry. But certain factors can reinforce its efficiency, starting with complementarity. Whether in terms of age, identity, or gender; prior experience; or political leanings, a vice president who is able to round out the president can ultimately make a more effective leader. Also essential is the indefectible, if not sacrificial, support of the VP for the president, which builds yet another essential ingredient - trust. This means a vice president must be able to put his loyalty for the Commander-in-Chief before personal considerations, to serve the president’s agenda regardless of the consequences for their future ambitions, and to express all criticism strictly in private. In essence, a vice president who acts as the president’s "best staffer" rather than co-president.
Experience shows that although the President owes nothing to the Number Two, they may capitalize on the duo's complementarity, the VP's total loyalty and on mutual trust in order to find in their VP a true partner with meaningful responsibilities to them. A vice presidency with heightened authority may begin with personal compatibility with the president, but it ultimately develops as a VP accepts the successive assignments they are given - regardless of their nature - and goes on to manage them competently. And while the partnership will never be one of equals, it can nonetheless be fruitful with a president reinforced by his VP and a VP with a track record to run on in the future.

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