The vice presidency: An overrated springboard

January 21, 2013

When Joe Biden sees President Obama deliver his second inaugural address Monday, he will see himself – plus four years.

The vice president has made little secret of his designs to run for president in 2016, and now we learn that he carved out time to meet with both Iowa Democrats and New Hampshire Gov. Maggie Hassan (D) this weekend.

From the New York Times:

The guest list for Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s swearing-in for a second term on Sunday suggested that he might indeed want to replace President Obama in four years.

Gov. Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire, the first presidential primary state, was among the people to join Mr. Biden, his family and close political associates at the vice president’s residence. The night before, Mr. Biden attended a pre-inaugural party of Democrats from Iowa, the first caucus state.

Before Justice Sonia Sotomayor administered the oath in the foyer of the vice-presidential mansion at the Naval Observatory, the Bidens attended a private Mass. About a dozen of Mr. Biden’s family members were at the swearing-in, and Governor Hassan, her husband and her daughter were among the 120 or so guests.

This, of course, is no accident. And over the next two-plus years (before the 2016 primary campaign begins in earnest), we should expect to see Biden forging relationships with many important people in states like Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada.

And if he ran in 2016, Biden would certainly be a contender. But, historically speaking, the vice presidency isn't as great a springboard as many people think.


Vice President Biden, with his wife Jill,  holding the Biden family bible, shakes hands with Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor after taking the oath of office during an official ceremony at the Naval Observatory on Jan. 20. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)

While many vice presidents have become president, the vast majority of them ascended to the position rather than winning it in their own right. In fact, in the past two centuries, only two vice presidents have been elected to the top job upon completion of their bosses' terms: George H.W. Bush and Martin Van Buren.

By contrast, over just the past 70 years, the losers include Al Gore, Dan Quayle, Walter Mondale, Hubert Humphrey, Henry Wallace and Richard Nixon (who lost in 1960 before winning eight years later).

Even among vice presidents who have ascended to the top job, about half wound up losing their next campaign when they ran for a full term.

Now, being vice president does have its perks. It allows for a high profile without the day-to-day grind of the presidency (depending upon the dynamic between the president and his VP, of course), and during festivities like this week, that allows Biden to cater to some very important people.

What's more, Biden is certainly better situated for the 2016 campaign than he was for his 2008 bid, when he was never anything more than an also-ran. So in that sense, being vice president was almost definitely a good thing for Biden's presidential hopes.

But history suggests that, when it comes to the 2016 presidential campaign, the value of being vice president should not be over-estimated.

Aaron Blake covers national politics and writes regularly for The Fix.
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Chris Cillizza · January 21, 2013