Sunday, August 24, 2008

Redefining the Vice Presidency

The anticipation around Barack Obama’s VP selection of Delaware Senator Joe Biden was unlike any most of us have ever seen. In the final days before the announcement, news networks on cable like CNN and MSNBC were reduced to repetitive talking about the anticipated event and surveillance of those said to be on the short list just waiting for some clues as to the identity of who was (or wasn’t) in the running.

Although some of this was to try and fill the need for 24/7 news programming, much of this signals that the vice presidency is finally being taken seriously as an important function.

It wasn’t always that way. For many, a stint as VP was a frustrating and demeaning job that involved little more than being around in case something were to happen to the president. Back in the 60s, political satirist Tom Lehrer offered
this song to describe the predicament of LBJ’s vice president, Hubert Humphrey.
Second fiddle's a hard part I know.
When they won't even give you a bow!
I especially enjoy reading articles about our political process in the US written by outsiders like A Political Signal recently published by The Times in the UK.

The (VP) decision will be important both in attracting votes and - for the new president - in managing the Administration.

It was not always so. The first vice-president, John Adams, described his role as “the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived”. Writing in 1974 the historian Arthur Schlesinger Jnr concluded that “the vice-presidency is not only a meaningless but a hopeless office”.

And so, for most of its history, it has been. When Vice-President Harry Truman succeeded to the Oval Office in April 1945, he was entirely unaware of the project to develop the A-bomb, whose use he authorised four months later. When Dwight D. Eisenhower was asked what important decisions of his Administration his vice-president had taken part in, he replied: “If you give me a week, I might think of one.”

You would think that filling a position that exists almost solely for the purpose of replacing a president with a qualified person for that office would have that as its top priority. I’m sure that our Founding Fathers had this intention when creating the vice president position in the Consititution. But the big flaw in the creation of this position is that the vice president has little else to do in the way of formal duties. The VP presides over the US Senate, but that is a mostly ceremonial job with the exception of breaking the occasional tie vote. It’s hard to imagine someone of the caliber to be president wanting to assume such a nothing job — unless the president is willing to give that person a substantial role in running its administration. For better or worse, the signficant power wielded by current VP Dick Cheney has likely changed the VP job forever.

The story of how Harry S. Truman
was selected as FDR’s running mate — little more than back room political negotiations — is astounding when you consider that we were still in World War II and Roosevelt's health was known to be failing (at least by those on the inside of his administration). And although he suffered from low popularity ratings while in office, Truman's handling of an incredible number of difficult decisions (most notably the use of the atomic bomb on Japan) has earned him almost universally high praise from presidential historians.

We were lucky that Truman turned out to be so good for the job. In addition, it is good that we had a very experienced legislator in Lyndon Johnson to take over after JFK’s assassination — even though LBJ was reluctantly picked by Kennedy as his running mate to try and carry the state of Texas (which worked). And if Spiro Agnew
was not forced to resign as a result of criminal charges, he would have become president instead of Gerald Ford after Nixon’s Watergate resignation.

I believe that a person who has previously run for president (or VP) should receive special consideration for the VP job. At least these people have received some serious scrutiny by the media and public. It really bothered me to hear speculation about both presidential candidates selecting some obscure person for reasons that had nothing to do with their ability to assume the presidency if needed. With the number of experienced candidates competing for the Democratic nomination, it would make sense that Senator Obama would seriously consider a number of them. And according to this recent
NYT article, this appears to have been the case.

But while the selection of Joe Biden has received praise because of his vast foreign affairs expertise, I wonder if he wouldn’t have been a better pick for Secretary of State. Indeed while Biden had difficulty getting strong voter support for his presidential run, a number of people told him during his campaign appearances that he would make a good Secretary of State.

But Obama obviously felt that he needed Biden on the campaign trail to get him elected in the first place and his role as his VP candidate fits the bill. But I can’t help but wonder — would Biden be competing for attention with Obama’s eventual Secretary of State choice if the Democrats are successful this November?

Thinking outside the box, one idea to address this possibility would be to give Biden most if not all of the Secretary of State duties. After all, the VP position has a very limited number of official duties. Why not take full advantage of someone’s expertise and experience while they are serving in this position?

The laws as written today would likely prohibit someone from serving in more than one position at a time. And the president may indeed want the VP to assume enough duties as an adviser or administrator to make it a full time job in itself. But an alternative that offers a possible cabinet position suitable for a particular VP choice would go a long way towards attracting top-notch talent that wouldn’t ordinarily be interested in such a position. This means that we would not only give the VP something more fulfilling to do during his or her term but also help to ensure that the person who may have to take over the presidency will truly be ready to lead. Just something to think about!

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