Biden and Cheney

During any presidency, the biggest political story in Washington is that there’s distance perceived between the president and vice president. 

That old truth finds confirmation in the recent fascination in this aspect of two new books penned by leading political journalists: Mark Halperin’s and John Heilemann’s, Double Down: Game Change 2012; and Peter Baker’s Days of Fire: Bush and Cheney in the White House. 

Halperin and Heilemann report that Barack Obama’s Chief of Staff, William Daley, ordered polling to determine whether replacing Vice President Joe Biden with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on the 2012 ticket would remedy Obama’s sagging popularity.  Baker documents the deterioration of the relationship between President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, especially during their second term which culminated in Cheney’s inability to obtain a presidential pardon for his close associate, Scooter Libby.  Both accounts of alleged presidential/vice-presidential conflict have received widespread coverage in recent days, notwithstanding that the news they reported sometimes wasn’t new and, in any event, concerned events that reportedly occurred two or four or more years ago.

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What’s lost in some of the coverage are larger lessons these episodes reveal about two very different vice presidencies, and presidential service more generally.

Biden wasn’t dumped. He was an asset to Obama’s administration and replacing him with Clinton would not have helped Obama’s re-election.  That’s what Daley’s testing apparently found.  Since the reports about the Halperin-Heilemann book have appeared, Obama and at least six close Obama associates have stated that neither Obama nor any influential adviser ever wanted to replace Biden.

Notwithstanding the speculation, dumping Biden was never in the cards.  It’s not just that since 1900 vice presidents don’t get dumped (unless they serve under Franklin D. Roosevelt or are Nelson A. Rockefeller).  Biden had done nothing to merit that fate.  On the contrary, Biden had been, and continues to be, an enormously consequential and effective vice president.  By 2011, when the testing occurred, he had supervised the implementation of the economic recovery plan and withdrawal from Iraq, had undertaken significant diplomatic missions and legislative work and proven himself an important presidential adviser on a range of issues.  Inside the White House, Biden had overcome the obstacles posed by his generational and stylistic distance from Obama to develop considerable influence based on a strong relationship.  Whereas dumped vice presidents like Henry Wallace and Rockefeller had formidable enemies in their own parties, Democratic leaders and constituencies appreciated Biden.

It’s not surprising that presidential confidantes will seek quick fixes when a president’s standing seems precarious as a re-election campaign approaches.  What’s striking is that anyone would have thought that replacing Biden might help Obama or that polling might reveal that Clinton would help Obama more.  For the polling necessarily occurred in a quite different context than that an Obama-Clinton ticket would have encountered.  Replacing Biden, even if tactfully done, would have changed media and public perceptions about Obama, Biden and Clinton in ways hard to simulate in advance and that would have rendered the pre-dumping numbers obsolete in the post-dumping climate.

Obama would have looked weak, dependent on Secretary Clinton for-re-election.  He would have appeared disloyal for jettisoning a vice president who had worked ably on his behalf and would have stimulated questions about why he hadn’t chosen Clinton in the first place and what that said about him.  Biden probably would have benefited from public sympathy. And Clinton’s standing would have declined as she lost the aura her diplomatic position conferred and was forced to address the economic issues and controversy over health care that were hurting Obama’s position.

Like Biden, Cheney exercised enormous influence as vice president.  He was never president or co-president but for a variety of reasons had greater power than any of his predecessors.  He began his term with a strong relationship with Bush, his role leading the transition allowed him to fill key administration posts with people who shared his worldview or who felt loyal to him or both, he brought enormous experience and expertise, and those qualities became more important after 9/11 made national security issues even more paramount, Bush’s leadership style made room for Cheney to operate, and Cheney skillfully seized those opportunities.

Cheney’s role declined for a variety of reasons during the second term.  Bush, like other second term presidents, differed from term one, Iraq and aspects of the war on terror had proved unpopular, Cheney faced some more assertive or effective adversaries, Cheney ignored political aspects of his job and his plummeting popularity eroded his standing.

But Cheney’s problems also traced to his occasional failure to protect Bush’s position.  His handling of the reauthorization of the warrantless surveillance program in spring 2004 almost triggered mass resignations in the Department of Justice, a development that would have compromised Bush’s re-election.  His office’s actions in the Valerie Plame affair embarrassed the administration.  And ultimately Cheney’s push for a Libby pardon demonstrated greater loyalty to his subordinate than to his superior or was probably perceived as such by Bush and his inner circle. 

These vice-presidential vignettes have attracted attention because they feed the fascination with perceived conflict at the top.  But they reveal a larger truth about life in the presidential court.  Biden survived because he was an asset whose service benefited Obama.  Cheney lost battles as his interests and Bush’s diverged.  Vice presidents, and others, forget those lessons at their peril.

Goldstein is Vincent C. Immel Professor of Law at Saint Louis University School of Law. He is the author of The Modern American Vice Presidency: The Transformation of a Political Institution.