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Do vice presidents matter? Far more than they used to, says SLU law professor Joel Goldstein

Joe Biden speaking at the August 23, 2008 vice presidential announcement in Springfield, Illinois, while presidential nominee Barack Obama listens.
Daniel Schwen | Wikimedia Commons
Joe Biden speaking at the August 23, 2008 vice presidential announcement in Springfield, Illinois, while presidential nominee Barack Obama listens.

It seems like a silly time to ask the question “do vice presidents matter?” when every half hour there’s chatter on news networks about who Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton will choose as their running mates. But, yet, the vice presidency wasn’t always considered as significant as it is now.

On Wednesday’s St. Louis on the Air, Joel Goldstein, the Vincent C. Immel Professor of Law at Saint Louis University, joined host Don Marsh to discuss his new book “The White House Vice Presidency: The Path to Significance, Mondale to Biden.”

Goldstein pointed out that the vice presidency has become far more important to the presidency and to the future of the country with the past six vice presidents, starting with Walter Mondale up to Joe Biden, than it ever was before. This happens to coincide with when vice presidents moved their offices into the White House alongside the President of the United States. During the election cycle, this shift is incredibly apparent.

“It has become increasingly important that vice presidential candidates be presidential,” Goldstein said. “That they be somebody who reachable voters for each ticket would perceive as somebody who they could see sitting in the Oval Office if that happened.”

Concerns over succession were not always top-of-mind when voting for a president, Goldstein pointed out. The successor role only emerged in the post-WWII, nuclear age. Only nine vice presidents have succeeded the president in the case of death or resignation. Today, even that role is changing.

“The vice presidency has become a job not so much focused on succession but on becoming an integral part of the president’s inner circle, being an operator who functions on an ongoing basis during the president’s term, not just when it prematurely ends, ” Goldstein said.

This time around, Goldstein said that Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton have different challenges in picking their vice presidents. Goldstein thinks Trump would be looking for someone with more traditional political or national security experience. Clinton, on the other hand, has a wide swath of experience in the executive branch.

Either way, maintaining a good relationship between president and vice president is increasingly important.

“Being vice president is like a political marriage with no possibility of divorce and how the experience is during the campaign and election depends on whether or not the presidential candidate is somebody who invites views and dissenting views or not,” Goldstein said. “Our past six presidents have been pretty good about hearing their vice presidents even when they said things they disagreed with. That’s crucial to making the role meaningful. If someone doesn’t have that disposition, it minimizes the role.”

Listen to the full discussion about the current election cycle, Joe Biden and the shift in the vice presidential role here:

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary Edwards, Alex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region. 

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Kelly Moffitt joined St. Louis Public Radio in 2015 as an online producer for St. Louis Public Radio's talk shows St. Louis on the Air.