Vice President’s Powers in the United States

Subject: Politics & Government
Pages: 8
Words: 2158
Reading time:
9 min
Study level: PhD


The United States’ constitution has changed since 1789 and the powers of the President and the Vice President (VP) have had a fluctuating trend; alternating between strong Presidents and weak VPs and verse versa. This paper is a study of the VP’s powers and how they have transformed in different administrations. For over 200 years, the office of the Vice President had been regarded as insignificant, a shadow of the president.

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The study will evaluate the purpose of the office of the vice president and to what extent is the office merely ‘standby equipment’. This office was considered to have been formed as an afterthought by the founding fathers. Early vice presidents like Thomas Jefferson and John Adams often regarded the office as a bar, with nothing to do. They thought the office lacked character. However, the vice presidency has gone through a full metamorphosis over the 200 year period. In 2008, there were calls to regulate its powers, as it has become imperial to the eyes of the Americans. 1

John N. Garner had served under the Roosevelt administration from 1933 to 1941 and has been in office for those years as a vice president, he was quoted referring to the office as ‘not worth a pitcher of warm spit. Why then would men of political standing want to occupy an office that they considered by all standards as powerless? The answer partly lies in the appeal they offer the electorate. It’s no secret that some presidential candidates have been known to choose running mates, who have a great influence on the voters. Some weak presidential candidates have been choosing people with qualities that complement their own, so as to better their chances of winning. 2

Recent vice presidents have remolded this position to an extent that it poses a threat to the executive. Dick Cheney and Walter Mondale have been regarded as some of the vice presidents who have circumnavigated the rules of office as stipulated in the Constitution, to become some of the most powerful vice presidents of modern times.


The role of the VP no is no longer limited to attending fundraisings and representing the head of state in foreign countries. Mondale has been accredited for shaping the VP’s office while serving under President Jimmy Carter in 1977-1981. Mondale’s perception of his role was that he was an influential and integral part of the big decision-making. During his tenure, he also enlarged his portfolio to include the president’s advisor, and in order to be on top of situations when he was needed, he frequently had lunches with the president. This has also become a norm with subsequent VPS.

The restructuring of the VP’s office also had better incentives for the new holders. They were no longer required to provide their own accommodation. Mondale was the first to be housed in the New VP’s mansion on Massachusetts Avenue. President Carter also wanted to have a closely neat relationship with his vice president, so he established the office of the vice president in the West Wing. The VP was also accorded a staff of about 60 members, working together with the staff of the president as a team. This move made some Democrats unhappy. For them, it was a mistake to make room for the vice in the White House. Mondale had managed to restructure his office powers, by appointing his aides to key policy-making positions.

Carter had opened up channels that allowed information to flow between him and his vice. Mondale was allowed to attend any meetings that the president attended and he was also allowed to choose whoever he wanted to bring to the meeting.3 This was a defining moment between the two offices. Monday luncheons were held between the two to discuss any issues that were pending or that had come up.

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The standby equipment did not apply as the VP was actively integrated into the president’s schedule. Mondale had managed to carve his place in the decision-making process in a way that no VP before him had been able to do. Mondale often took positions in several positions and offered his opinions, which Carter listened to with high regard. In 1978, while Congress had passed a military spending bill, Mondale was quick to convince the president to veto it.

Mondale was clearly the driving force behind the president, evidenced by his constant effort to get Carter to handle congress better before he lost the public’s confidence. While Carter’s power dwindled, Mondale was making progress with other legislations in the house. Carter’s main undoing was making bad decisions one after the other. Leading to a breakdown in teamwork with is vice. Mondale was started taking a passive role as Carter ignored his request for a better governance structure.4 A relationship that had been forged by mutual cooperation and trust took a turn for the worst. The Carter administration was losing in the polls. Last-minute resolutions by the vice president did not yield any fruits. The economy was in disarray, with double-digit inflation, and the foreign policy left little to be desired.

Dan Quayle was the 44th Vice President of the United States and served with George H. W. Bush, from 1989-1993. Bush had served as a vice president immediately before him, serving with President Ronald Reagan. Even though Mondale had paved the way for future VPs, Quayle still regarded his position as characterized by foreign trips and occasional fundraising ceremonies.5 The question that arises from this is, do the powers of the vice president shifts with each administration? Mondale had served as a powerful VP with all channels networked with those of the president. How did Quayle’s situation revert back to the powerless state? The Bush aides had regarded Quayle a political lightweight, who would not much impact in as far as contributing to the Presidential election was concerned.

However, Bush had a different picture of the whole situation. His strategy was to choose Quayle as his running mate, as he would appeal to the younger generation of voters. He was an asset that Bush had banked on; his conservative leadership style would complement the President’s moderate style. Bush also selected him, because had not curved his niche in the political arena and would there be dependent on Bush. As most presidential do, Bush had selected Quayle because he thought that he would bring balance to Texas background. He was also the right age and one of the respected senators in the region.

Quayle was largely disregarded by the Bush aides; they never gave him much respect. He soon found out that the job was not what he had expected it to be. He no longer enjoyed the freedom of saying or doing what he wanted as an individual. The President was in charge of setting out the agenda and his role was to follow in his footsteps. He found his job to be confining and somewhat awkward because there was no clear definition of what he was supposed to do as a vice president. He was left with the duties of raising funds as his predecessors had done. It is clear that Bush had only appointed Quayle because of his influence on the young voters, and once that was achieved, he was left with a powerless office.

Bush, served as VP and as President. It is easy to compare his presidency and his vice presidency. Reagan had regarded Bush as a weak candidate, a person who crashed under the pressure of political criticism. The president-vice president relations were not cordial, as Bush and Reagan were almost never seen at social functions together. The first term saw Bush assigned a couple of tasks to keep him busy. He was assigned the task of federal deregulation and to head a task force that would combat the entry of drugs into the country. By the second term, Bush was constantly left out of key decisions. Public opinion labeled him as a weak VP. During his presidency, however, he tried to redeem his image by programming each agenda.

Constitutionally the work of the VP is to chair the senate and to standby in case the presidency is left vacant. Quayle and Bush seemed to have resigned themselves to that fact. While Quayle and Bush complained about their jobs, Cheney enjoyed his position as VP from day one. He has become to be known as one of the most powerful VPs in the modern history of American federal governance. President Bush and Cheney had a cordial relationship that was displayed in the way they worked together. 6

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They were a perfect combination, complementing each other in ways on levels that the other VPs had never reached before. It is no wonder that the public and media referred to their governance as the Bush –Cheney administration. This is because the VP had managed to take a strategic position in the major decision-making. Bush had indicated from the start that Cheney was welcome to attend all presidential executive meetings. He was also allowed to sit in both the foreign policy and the Committee of the Principals. Cheney seemed to enjoy powers that VPs before him had only dreamt about.7

Bush even went a step further to delegate the appointment of senior presidential staff to the VP. This was an advantage to Cheney as he used the opportunity to appoint his allies to different positions in government. It is also important to note that, he sort approval for all appointments that he made from the presidents. Having allies working for him made it easier for him to work as vice president. 8

Separation of power which is normally the practice in the US Constitution seemed not to be applying in the Bush-Cheney administration. Cheney had grown more powerful to the extent that it was considered, that his powers outweighed those of the president. The events of 9/11 brought forth a different kind of both presidency and vice presidency. The checks and balances that had hindered the president from exercising extra powers, were relaxed enabling Bush to his powers in full. 9

Even before the 9/11 terror attack, it was clear that the Bush administration was out to accumulate powers for the president. The terror attack only acted as a blessing in disguise. Naturally, after 9/11, the war on terror became Bush’s Priority. Cheney’s responsibilities also expanded to include matters of foreign policy. Has been hard to become so much power that had the power to fire military personnel. He once dismissed a military officer for speaking to the media without prior approval. His capacity as a vice president had surpassed his predecessors; he had accumulated more power than all of them combined.

Regardless of the office, Cheney had become a force to reckon with in the Bush administration.10 The media has often regarded Cheney to have been more powerful than Bush. This to some extent might have been true because Cheney was actively involved in the war against terror. He was more of a presidential material than most presidents would ever be. 11The history of the office of the vice president has come a long way since 1789. It might have been an accidental post but, it has been transformed over the years to become not only a presidential stepping stone to power but also a recognizable force on its own.12

VPs like Cheney and Mondale have displayed that the office is not just an awkward existence within the American constitution, but it is also as powerful as the presidency. The current administration portrays a different kind of relationship from that of Bush and Cheney. President Obama is a down-to-earth kind of leader, with hands-on every sort of situation; leaving his vice with little to do than fall back to old routines of past VPs.

Mondale in his memoirs was happy to have been in office as a vice president. He had been a proud liberal politician. Quayle on the other hand proved to be a stepping stone for Bush, often with little to do. Bush often used him in forums where he was not allowed to say statements in a certain way. To some extent, Quayle was Bush’s ‘puppet’. The Reagan administration was a strong presidency; however Bush was not so much of VP, often shying away from any form of criticism. Cheney will perhaps be remembered for a long time for being the most powerful vice president.13

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The office of the VP has been under gradual transition for many years, often shaped in different casts as different presidents take office. Strong presidents have been known to select weak VPs and strong vice presidents have managed to complement weak presidents. However, presidents allocate powers to their VPs as they see fit. There it would be of no significance to say, that the vice president’s office makes the presidency seem weak, as it is the president’s decision to determine what duties he wants his vice president to perform.14


Anne, Shirley. The co-presidency of Bush-Cheney (Stanford Politics & Policy). Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2009.

Broder, David & Woodward, Bob. The Man Who Would Be President: Dan Quayle. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992.

Bush, W. George. Decision Points. New York: Crown Publishing Group, 2010.

Edmund, Robert. A Defeated Past: The Vice Presidents of America. New York. Crown Group Publishing, 2008.

Ellis, Richard. Debating, the presidency: Conflicting perspectives on the American executive. Washington, DC: Sage Publications, 2010.

Gellman, Barton. Angler: The Shadow Presidency of Dick Cheney. New York: Penguin Group, 2008.

Gellman, Barton. Angler: The Cheney Presidency. New York: Penguin Group, 2009.

Gillon, Steven. The Democrat’s Dilemma: Walter F. Mondale and the Liberal Legacy. New York: Columbia University Press, 1992.

Glasrud, Bruce. The Presidents: The VPs and the growing power. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2009.

Goldstein, Joel. The Modern American Vice Presidency: The Transformation of a Political Institution. Princeton: Princeton University Press.1982.

Hayes, Stephen. Cheney: The Untold Story of America’s powerful and controversial vice president. New York: Herpercollins Publications, 2007.

Light, Paul. Vice-Presidential Power: Advice and Influence in the White House. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1984.

Kelter, Bill. Veeps: Profiles in Insignificant. Marietta: Top Shelf Productions, 2008.

Mondale, Walter. The Good Fight: A Life in Liberal Politics. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010.


  1. Richard Ellis, Debating, the presidency: Conflicting perspectives on the American executive (Washington, DC: Sage Publications, 2010), 35.
  2. Bruce Glasrud, The Presidents: The VPs and the growing power ( New York: Simon & Schuster, 2009), 56-59.
  3. Walter Mondale, The Good Fight: A life in Liberal Politics (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010), 23-56.
  4. Joel Goldstein, The Modern American vice Presidency: The Transformation of a Political Institution (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1982), 127.
  5. David Broder & Bob Woodward, The Man Who Would be President: Dan Quayle (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992.), 45.
  6. Steven Gillon, The Democrat’s Dilemma: Walter F. Mondale and the Liberal Legacy (New York: Columbia University Press, 1992), 34.
  7. Shirley Anne, The co-presidency of Bush-Cheney (Stanford Politics & Policy) (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2009), 68.
  8. Barton Gellman, Angler: The Shadow Presidency of Dick Cheney (New York: Penguin Group, 2008), 23-45.
  9. George W. Bush, Decision Points (New York: Crown Publishing Group, 2010), 23.
  10. Stephen Hayes, Cheney: The Untold Story of Americas powerful and controversial vice president (New York: Herpercollins Publications, 2007), 120.
  11. Robert Edmund, A Defeated Past: The Vice Presidents of America (New York. Crown Group Publishing, 2008), 46.
  12. Barton Gellman, Angler: The Cheney Presidency (New York: Penguin Group, 2009), 123.
  13. Paul Light, Vice-Presidential Power: Advice and Influence in the White House (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1984), 111.
  14. Bill Kelter, Veeps: Profiles in Insignificant (Marietta: Top Shelf Productions, 2008), 67-100.