This is something one of my favorite Founding Fathers observed centuries ago. “My country,” John Adams once lamented, “has in its wisdom contrived for me the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived.” That office, of course, was the office of vice president.
And Biden’s thoughts on the subject today seem eerily familiar:
Vice President Biden touted his role in the White House, saying he spends between four and seven hours a day with President Obama.
In a Time magazine interview published Monday, Biden said the vice president holds no inherent power. Instead, the power emanates from his relationship with the president.
“I mean, Kennedy never let Johnson in the office,” he said. “I spend somewhere between four and seven hours a day with the president. I attend every single meeting. I’m there.”
The vice president is considering a run for president in 2016, saying recently he will make a decision by the summer of next year. He said his responsibility during Obama’s second term has not changed.
When he was brought on as Obama’s vice presidential running mate, Biden said he had two conditions: He wanted to be the last guy in the room after meetings and he wanted to take on assignments that had timelines to get done.
“Because the one thing you can do as vice president — by the way, there is no inherent power in the office of the vice presidency,” he said. “Zero. None. It’s all a reflection ... of your relationship with the president.”
One can therefore sympathize with Vice President Adams; after all, he was famously kept at a distance and rarely consulted by President George Washington on important public matters, and spent most of his tenure presiding over the U.S. Senate, to his great annoyance. He did, however, cast more tie-breaking votes as president of that chamber than any of his successors.
Nevertheless, what’s interesting about Biden’s comments today is that he’s basically telling the public that serving as vice president is nothing at all like serving as president. Why? Presumably if/when he runs, which seems likely, his “experience” would be a major talking point he’d use to his advantage on the campaign trail. For eight years, he’d say, I sat “one heartbeat away” from occupying the most powerful political office in the world -- that is, ‘I know what it’s like to be president.' But if serving as vice president is merely an advisory position, as he now readily concedes, and all about building a “relationship” with the commander-in-chief -- and not exercising real power -- how does that make him more qualified than, say, Hillary Clinton to lead the nation?
The office of vice president is certainly a stepping stone to the top job, but Biden’s comments suggest he’s performing an inherently trivial and ceremonially public service. And while that may true, I suspect that’s not the kind of pitch Democratic primary voters will get behind -- or get excited about -- in 2016.