The Magazine

Inconsequential Joe

A return to the typical vice-presidency.

Jan 5, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 16 • By PHILIP TERZIAN
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One of the conventions of modern presidential transitions is the ritual exaltation of vice presidents-to-be. The incoming vice president, it is announced, will have unprecedented responsibilities in the new administration. His desk will be located just inches from the Oval Office; he will be first among equals in the councils of state; he will dine with the commander in chief on a regular basis; his special province will be trade, or defense, or the mission to Neptune.

Whether this is because newly elected presidents really think their running mates are a national resource, or such rhetorical gestures are simple political courtesy, it is difficult to say. Almost invariably, however, such declarations are less than true. There have been genuinely powerful vice presidents--the incumbent, Dick Cheney; and George H.W. Bush was far from insignificant--but such exceptions prove the rule.

Joseph Biden, the 66-year-old six-term senator from Delaware, who is nothing if not a quintessential politician of his time, is destined to be more typical than not. We know this for two reasons. First, because the Obama apparatus has not even bothered to say that Joe Biden will have unprecedented responsibilities during the next four years. And second, because the only significant story to emerge about Biden since the election has been the fact--duly reported in the press--that the Bidens beat the Obamas in their quest to acquire a puppy. (For the record, Biden's new dog is a German shepherd.)

In fact, it may be fair to assume that Biden will be the least consequential vice president since Alben Barkley, the amiable 71-year-old Senate fixture from Kentucky, known popularly as the "Veep," who was so underwhelmed by his four years' service in the Truman administration that he subsequently got himself elected to the Senate again.

It is difficult to imagine either Hillary Clinton or General James Jones actively soliciting Joe Biden's judgment in foreign affairs, or -Timothy Geithner and Lawrence Summers consulting Biden on the economy. Similarly, if the neophyte Obama seeks advice on politics or policy, is Biden destined to be the one to set him straight, or whip the troops into line, or populate the White House and executive branch with Biden people? Will Rahm Emanuel be expected to "clear it" with Joe?

To ask such questions is to answer them--even without laughing. Indeed, if there were any doubt about the insignificance of Joseph Biden in Barack Obama's administration, it was answered with last week's announcement that Biden would chair a special, cabinet-level task force to assess the conditions of American middle- and working-class families. ("Is the number of these families growing?" asks the vice president-elect. "Are they prospering?") This is close to pure Democratic boilerplate. It might have been more entertaining to put Biden in charge of a White House council on change we can believe in, or appoint him to be the logorrhea czar, but no less humiliating.

This is not to say, of course, that Biden will disappear into his hideaway office on Capitol Hill, like -Barkley, and fuel his afternoons with bourbon and branch water. Obama has been reasonably scrupulous about including Biden in public announcements and photo ops. But it will be noted that the next vice president has tended to serve as announcer and master of ceremonies at these events--a sort of Ed McMahon to Obama's Johnny Carson--instead of a member of the incoming squad. No journalist has detected the hand of Biden in personnel selections, or seriously suggested that factions in the Obama administration will naturally gravitate toward Biden's orbit.

'Twas ever thus. The modern vice presidency has been populated, in Washington terms, by many estimable men--Richard Nixon, Lyndon Johnson, Hubert Humphrey, Gerald Ford, Nelson Rockefeller, Walter Mondale, George H.W. Bush, Dan Quayle, Al Gore, Dick Cheney--but the contents of the chalice are considerably watered down. In some instances (Nixon, Bush) the office was, with some complications, a convenient stepping stone; in others (Humphrey, Gore), proximity to power had tragic political consequences. For LBJ and Ford, the vice presidency was a stroke of ill-disguised luck. For Rockefeller, it was a bittersweet climax to a monumental career. Mondale and Quayle were probably promoted to where they belonged.

Still, it is by any measure an ambiguous position: more than the "bucket of warm piss" described by John Nance Garner, less than its constitutional status suggests. In Dick Cheney's case, his power has derived from the consent of George W. Bush--not a good omen for Barack Obama's deputy--so Biden might have to console himself with comforting thoughts.