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The Significance of ‘The Most Insignificant Office’

With Biden’s Pick of Harris, UMD Expert Traces the Growing Role and Influence of Vice Presidents

By Liam Farrell

Joe Biden calling Kamala Harris on Zoom

Photo by Adam Schultz/Biden for President

In a sign of the times—both presidential and pandemic—Joe Biden calls Kamala Harris over Zoom yesterday to discuss joining him as the Democratic nominee for vice president. School pf Public Policy lecturer Aaron Mannes explains the significance of and strategy behind the choice.

While writing his dissertation, School of Public Policy lecturer Aaron Mannes Ph.D. ’14 included a section of jokes about the irrelevancy of vice presidents—ironic, considering he was studying how the position had gone from one of frequent anonymity (quick, name FDR’s first two VPs!) to the subject of Oscar-nominated feature films (2018’s “Vice,” about Dick Cheney).

The importance of that role is now the subject of a national discussion, after former Vice President Joe Biden yesterday selected U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris of California to join him on the Democratic presidential ticket in November. She is the first Black woman and person of Indian descent nominated by a major party for the White House.

Mannes spoke to Maryland Today about the strategy behind that pick, whether vice presidents historically influence voters, and how the office has changed over time.

What strengths does Harris bring to the Democratic ticket?
She’s shown that she’s a strong campaigner, she’s energetic, she’s engaging. And she’s certainly sending the message of diversity, that America is a changing country and she is emblematic of that. Harris has won three statewide races in a big state. The first one was a tough one—the Republicans went after her pretty hard. She’s got a lot of significant political experience, and that’s important.

What is the usual electoral impact of a vice president pick?
The electoral impact of vice presidents according to most studies is not that much. The worst thing is, if you pick someone who is not credible, you can hurt yourself. The real issues are going to be whether they get electoral turnout and what the economy is doing. There may be some outliers but overall research shows people vote for the president.

How do you think she will work with Biden on the campaign trail?
It was interesting to learn Harris had been friendly with Biden’s late son, Beau. I think it helped the Bidens have a level of comfort with her. Joe Biden gets along with people. He’s a pretty gregarious guy. Sometimes presidents pick someone who won’t overshadow them, but I don’t see Biden terribly worried about that.

Vice presidents have been pretty active on the campaign trail going back to the 1950s. It’s sort of become traditional that the vice president delivers “red meat” to the party faithful. The media has changed, but I’m not sure the fundamental campaign role of the vice president has.

As a day-to-day government job, how important have vice presidents typically been?
Their primary constitutional responsibility is to preside over the Senate—that’s preside, not lead or chair. That’s a very narrow responsibility, and frankly you just do what the president says. John Adams (the first vice president) called it “the most insignificant office.”

There are some fascinating outliers: Martin Van Buren had been secretary of state and was a close confidante of Andrew Jackson. William McKinley’s first vice president, Garret Hobart, was a corporate lawyer who did politics on the side. McKinley actually relied on him, and Hobart helped him manage his finances.

Has the modern vice presidency operated differently?
Jimmy Carter had the idea that the vice president shouldn’t just be backup equipment and also instituted the modern vetting process.

Walter Mondale presented to Carter a list of things he needed to be an effective vice president; Carter agreed to all of it, and added something important—an office in the West Wing. This was the institutional framework of the modern vice presidency: regular private meetings with the president and access to the policymaking process.

What sort of guidance do they typically offer the president?
Since Carter, we’ve basically been electing presidents with very little Washington experience. They’ve picked vice presidents with that experience and turned to them in areas where they have gaps in their knowledge—Congress is a big one, and the intelligence community. It’s a complex bureaucracy and presidents who haven’t worked with it before struggle to really understand its capabilities. But lots of issues come up that even presidents who had previously been governors find new and challenging.

What’s interesting is that Biden is an insider, he knows Congress, the bureaucracy, and the global situation well. But he’s also publicly committed to having the kind of partnership with his vice president that he had with President Obama.



Schools & Departments:

School of Public Policy

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