USA Today OPINION
Aaron Mannes, Opinion contributor Published 5:02 a.m. ET Aug. 2, 2020
You didn’t become vice president just for future opportunities. You want to make a difference now. There’s good news and bad news.
Congratulations on being selected as Joe Biden’s running mate. If the polls hold, you’ll be the first female vice president of the United States. (Don’t take too much credit for the win, or blame if you lose. Research shows that the vice presidential candidate doesn’t make much difference.)
The vice presidency is a good gig. It comes with a plane, a nice house and lots of high-profile appearances. It provides a good chance of becoming president. Of the 48 vice presidents, 14 have become president (15, if Biden is elected). Again, if Biden is elected then in the past 14 presidential elections, three vice presidents have been elected president (Nixon, Bush and Biden) and two others came very close (Humphrey and Gore).
But you didn’t become vice president just for future opportunities. You want to make a difference now. There’s good news and bad news. Good news, first.
Good news for the potential next VP
In 1976, Democratic presidential nominee Jimmy Carter revolutionized the vice presidency. Historically, the office was mostly the butt of jokes, what historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. called a constitutional “appendix.” Carter viewed this as waste. The former Georgia governor chose Walter Mondale, a respected Democratic senator from Minnesota, for their personal and political compatibility. This was an innovation in its own right — previous presidential nominees hadn’t given it much thought. Carter ensured his vice president would have access to the president and the White House policy process. This included a weekly private lunch with the president and entrée for the vice president and his staff to White House meetings and paper flow at every level. Most important was giving Mondale a West Wing office. In the White House things happen on the fly, but unlike his predecessors, Mondale could look in on the national security adviser or chief of staff — whose offices are right next door, or see the president in the Oval Office down the hall.
These vice presidential perquisites have continued and expanded. Mondale’s chief of staff was also made a member of the White House staff, giving him access to the White House. By 2016, the final full year of Biden’s vice presidency under President Barack Obama, eight people from his office were also on the White House staff.
Biden, as a two-term vice president, chose you for the ticket because you are “simpatico.” Biden won’t cut you out of the process, like President Richard Nixon did to Vice President Spiro Agnew, who he despised. You will see the president often and know what’s going on in the White House.
There’s stuff you should do to keep things this way. Presidents hate leaks. You can give the president unvarnished advice, even disagree with him, but do it privately. Stories of president-vice president disagreements will be bad for both of you. Don’t let your staff leak either. Dan Quayle didn’t have a great hand to play as vice president in President George H.W. Bush’s administration, but his staffers leaking White House dirt didn’t help. And when the president makes a decision, like it or not, publicly support it.
Bad news for Biden’s VP candidate
Now the bad news: Biden knows how to “president.” The expansion of the vice president’s role has coincided with a string of outsider presidents who came to office with little or no experience in D.C.—governors (and also Obama who had only been in the Senate for four years). They turned to their vice presidents when they faced new issues such as national security, and unfamiliar Washington institutions, like Congress.
Biden was vice president for eight years and a senator from Delaware for 36 years. What can you tell him about Congress or world affairs that he won’t already know? Further, Biden has plenty of experienced advisers. Outsider presidents have turned to the experienced staffers of their insider vice presidents. When incoming President Ronald Reagan saw his team needed more Washington experience, he turned to James Baker, campaign manager and close friend of his GOP primary rival-turned-vice president, George H.W. Bush. As White House Chief of Staff the uber-effective Baker played a critical role in making the Reagan Revolution a reality.
Serving an insider president puts you in a similar position to Dan Quayle, who found the job mostly fundraising and funerals.
All is not hopeless. One presidential resource is finite: time. Find areas that are important, but the president lacks the time to address. Quayle did useful diplomacy in Latin America and Asia, where the president’s national security team — focused on Europe and the Middle East — didn’t have time. Alternately, the president may have an issue in which he is heavily invested and assigns you to reinforce this commitment. President Bill Clinton was deeply interested in Russia and assigned Vice President Al Gore to oversee a bilateral commission to strengthen those ties.
Unattached to any bureaucracy and with a unique convening power, vice presidents can be a force multiplier and bring focus to key issues. George H.W. Bush oversaw regulatory reform and a counter-terror task force. Besides several bilateral commissions, Gore ran the reinventing government initiative. Biden managed the stimulus spending for Obama. Biden will probably give you a few such assignments.
Biden is famously friendly, you’ll get along great with him. But that doesn’t mean that your efforts mesh politically with the White House, which is a big bureaucracy in its own right. Having some of your staffers in senior White House positions would be great, but unlikely. Encourage your staff to get close to their White House counterparts, and consider bringing experienced Biden staffers onto your team.
Your job is to help the president any way that you can. Everything you know about the president — what he’s worried about, what he needs, what he doesn’t know that he should — can help you help him.
Congratulations and good luck. We all are wishing you every success — we’re all counting on you.
Aaron Mannes is a lecturer at the University of Maryland School of Public Policy. He wrote his dissertation on vice presidential influence. Follow him on Twitter: @awmannes