Vice Presidents Collage

Surprising Influence: The Age of Biden

(Yet another overdue crosspost from my main blog TerrorWonk.  Hey don’t you have something better to do, like write your dissertation? Yes…)

The last week with the dramatic fiscal cliff negotiations should have been case study gold for this vice president obsessed PhD candidate.

Biden, as all but those sensible enough to turn off the news, must know negotiated a settlement with Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell to avoid going headfirst over the fiscal cliff.

Many, many articles touted Vice President Biden as “the most powerful” or “the most influential” vice president in history (or at least the 2nd most powerful – tough to rival Cheney). This one, in the pretty much hits the tone. There was so much of this sort of thing that in The New Republic, Timothy Noah wrote:

What we can say with some confidence is that the vice presidency has always been worth a good deal more than a bucket of warm piss, and that at least since Harry Truman became president in 1945 it’s been a pretty reliable steppingstone to the presidency. In the modern era vice presidents have tended to be powerful even when they didn’t become president, probably because their selection has been based less on party loyalty or geographic, demographic, or ideological balance and more on perceived aptitude and compatibility with the chief executive….Powerful veeps aren’t news. Time to stop pretending that they are.

A few fussy points (if I’m going to be an academic, I have to learn to be fussy.) My dissertation is about the question of influence, when the vice president effectively makes policy. Is that what happened here?  Biden managed the negotiations with McConnell and reached an agreement, but was that influential or more a matter of carrying-out a difficult task? This is not to downplay Biden’s role, and it is a role other VPs have played in the past. Gore negotiated all kinds of difficult issues with Russia, Ukraine, and South Africa – but he was effectively carrying out policy, not making (there were cases where he pushed for policies within the White House and he was often successful.) Mondale handled sensitive issues with the Senate on Carter’s behalf, most notably the Panama Canal Treaty. But the Treaty was Carter’s idea, Mondale just helped make it happen.

On many other issues, it appears that Biden has been influential, but as important as his role was, I’m not sure if it is necessarily influence.

Brother or Uncle
I have observed before that age may be an indicator in President-VP relationships. The strongest relationships were between virtual contemporaries. Carter is four years older than Mondale, while Clinton is two years older than Gore. Reagan, on the other hand, was 13 years older than Bush, while Bush was 23 years older than Quayle. I am working on some analytical methods of rating vice presidential influence, but eyeballing it would make it appear that the closer the President and Vice President are in age, the more likely the vice president is to exercise influence. Mondale and Gore were pretty influential, Bush Sr. less so, and Quayle’s influence was limited.

But what about a case in which the VP is older? Cheney is five years older than Bush 43 and Biden is 19 years older than Obama. These two figures are also towards the top of the scale in vice presidential influence.

Of course there are other variables. Obama was one of the least experienced President’s in modern history. Bush 43 was much more experienced and had very little background in foreign affairs, which quickly became central to his administration. Bush Sr, while younger than Reagan, was extremely experienced but faced internal opposition from Reagan loyalists. There are obviously other factors determining vice presidential influence. But still, the trend is intriging.

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