He had been president for barely a month. After just 31 days in office, William Henry Harrison died. It was 1841. Who would lead America now? No one was sure. But John Tyler stepped up. He was Harrison’s vice president — and now he said he was president.
Tyler took over and became America’s 10th president. And he set an important example in U.S. history. If a president ever died, the vice president would get the top job. That has now happened eight times. The “veep” also took over one time when a president resigned.
The Role of the Vice President
So, the vice president is there just in case something happens to the president. But does he or she do anything else? Joel Goldstein is an expert about that. He has written books about the vice presidents.
“For most of our history, the vice presidency really had no significant duties,” said Goldstein. America’s first vice president, John Adams, called it “the most insignificant office" that man had ever created. “Historically, the vice presidency was the most mocked — or made fun of — position in American government,” Goldstein told News-O-Matic. “He had no powers.”
Actually, the Constitution gave the veep one job. It said:
“The Vice President of the United States shall be President of the Senate, but shall have no Vote, unless they be equally divided" (U.S. Constitution, Article I, Section 3).
That gave the vice president the role “president of the Senate.” That may sound important. But it gives the veep no vote unless there is a tie. That’s a pretty rare event. In eight years as vice president under President Barack Obama, Joe Biden never cast a tiebreaking vote in the Senate — not once!
On the other hand, current Vice President Mike Pence has cast a tiebreaking vote 13 times. That’s more than any veep since the 1800s! For example, the 100 members of the Senate split their vote 50–50 in 2017 on whether to make Betsy DeVos America’s secretary of education. Pence broke the tie to give her the job.
The Growing Importance of the Vice President
“The vice presidency really has changed tremendously,” said Goldstein. “The main role had been to be ready in case something happened to the president,” he admitted. “But that started to change in the 1950s.” At that time, Dwight Eisenhower was America’s 34th president. And Richard Nixon was his veep.
“President Eisenhower began to include Vice President Nixon in Cabinet meetings,” explained Goldstein. “He began to send him on trips to foreign countries,” he added. During this time, the United States and the Soviet Union were competing for support from other nations. “It was important to send high-level Americans around the globe to make the case as to why other countries should be friends with us,” said Goldstein. “And so the vice president took on much of that responsibility.”
Over time, the vice president took on a greater role. “Then the real change began during the presidency of Jimmy Carter in 1977,” said Goldstein. Walter Mondale was Carter’s vice president then. “For the first time, the vice president became a close advisor and troubleshooter for the president who took on important assignments.” After that, the role of the veep had shifted. According to Goldstein, it became about “trying to help the president be successful in governing the country.”
In fact, we’re seeing this new role today. Mike Pence isn’t just waiting around in case something happens to President Donald Trump. Pence is in charge of the White House coronavirus task force. That means it’s his job to stop the COVID-19 disease from spreading.
The Veep’s Effect in an Election
So, the vice president can break ties in the Senate. And he or she now has a greater role in helping the president run the country. Yet there’s another role of the veep that may be the most important. He or she can help get the president elected!
For example, John Kennedy was from Massachusetts, in the North. When he ran for president in 1960, his running mate was Lyndon B. Johnson from Texas, in the Southwest. Johnson was popular in that part of the country. Goldstein said Johnson therefore “was critical in terms of carrying some of the Southern and Western states that Kennedy needed in order to be elected.” This may have happened in other elections too.
Six of America’s last 15 presidential elections have been very close. The person running for vice president may have only a small effect on the total votes. But Goldstein explained that even that “can make the difference between winning and losing.”
The Veep in 2020
This year, Joe Biden picked Kamala Harris to be his running mate. Goldstein called her “a thoughtful and effective speaker.” And he called that choice “a wise, strategic move.” If Biden wins the election, Harris will become the first woman — and the first person of color — to hold the role of vice president.
Meanwhile, Biden is trying to make vice presidential history of his own. Only five vice presidents first became president by winning an election. He hopes to be the sixth.
Updated October 30, 2020, 5:03 P.M. (ET)
By Russell Kahn (Russ)
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