Wednesday, December 09, 2009

The Role of the VP

We've talked a little about the role of the Vice President in the past (we also have a few posts on specific VPs). This week at HNN Joel K. Goldstein discusses "How the Vice President Can Serve as the President's Most Unbiased Adviser." He compares Biden's current efforts and Walter Mondale's role. He says that:
Biden played the distinctive vice-presidential role that Walter Mondale proposed 33 years ago. In so doing, Biden helped shape Obama's policy toward Afghanistan and offered a model for a constructive role vice presidents can play in presidential decision-making.

Mondale argued that in addition to providing substantive advice to a president the vice president can help foster a process to ground presidential decision-making in "the free flow of ideas and information which is indispensable to a healthy and productive administration."

Vice Presidents have often been administration after-thoughts:
Vice presidents have not always been able to play such a role. Presidents have traditionally excluded them from their inner circles. Franklin Roosevelt never told Vice President Harry S. Truman of efforts to build an atomic weapon. Dwight D. Eisenhower famously confessed in 1960 that he would need a week to recall some major idea that Richard M. Nixon had contributed to his administration. Lyndon B. Johnson barred Hubert H. Humphrey from discussions of Vietnam after Humphrey expressed dissenting views early in his vice presidency.

This role changed during the Carter administration:
That pattern changed during Jimmy Carter's administration. In a memorandum of December 1976, Mondale proposed that the vice president serve as a senior presidential adviser. Mondale thought he could offer Carter the advice of an experienced politician whose perspectives were not biased by responsibilities for any particular department.

But Mondale's recommendation also reflected a deeper concern regarding presidential decision-making. He had an insight into how vice presidents could make a distinctive contribution to solving "the biggest single problem" of recent administrations. That problem was, in Mondale's judgment, "the failure of the President to be exposed to independent analysis not conditioned by what it is thought he wants to hear or . . . what others want him to hear."

Mondale was right. To guard against such tendencies, every president needs a trusted figure who has the credibility and skill to challenge shared conceptions, the stature to put experts through their paces and the independence to make sure that the president hears a full assessment of the risks of courses others may recommend.

Mondale thought the vice president was well-equipped for this role. The vice president had the job security, political judgment and stature to discharge this assignment, and his recognition of a shared political destiny with the president provided incentive to protect the president's interests.
Carter accepted that recommendation and gave Mondale the necessary access. Largely as a result of Mondale's performance, his successors have also functioned as presidential advisers.


Not all Vice Presidents have done well in this role, but we have seen, in the last thirty years, a definite increase in the role of the Vice President from "most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived." [John Adams].

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