In describing the role he will play as vice president, Joe Biden told interviewers that he wanted to be "counselor in chief." A look at how Americans view vice presidents in general and Dick Cheney and Joe Biden in particular.
What do ordinary Americans have to say about the post?
In recent years, vice presidents have had significant policy roles.
Much like the ones today, most of the early polls about vice presidents asked respondents about combined presidential and vice presidential campaign tickets. One of the first stand-alone questions about a vice president was asked in 1938 about FDR's vice president, John Nance Garner, who once described the office as being "not worth a bucket of warm p---." (He later amended the expletive to "spit.")
In a poll for Fortune magazine, the Roper Organization asked people about the ideological views of a number of prominent political figures. Thirty-nine percent described Garner as a conservative and 21% said he was a liberal. In the survey, 51% described Roosevelt as a liberal and 9% said he a conservative--a signal of the clash to come between the two men. Garner broke with FDR and ran against him in the 1940 Democratic primaries.
Over the next decade, pollsters asked a handful of questions about the vice president's role. One asked people to describe the responsibilities of the office. Most people understood that the vice president presides over the Senate and takes over for the president in case of absence, illness, emergency or death. One percent of respondents commented that the office-holder didn't have any responsibilities except to play golf, go fishing and make derogatory statements.
In two questions asked by Gallup in 1948, around 80% said the veep should help with administrative problems so that the president would have more time to devote to policy. Forty-six percent of Americans said he should have an official residence; 41% said this wasn't necessary. Almost 30 years later, Walter Mondale was the first vice president to move into the official residence. Oh, and Americans didn't want to pay vice presidents very much, either.
In recent years, of course, vice presidents have had significant policy roles. As Reagan's vice president, George H.W. Bush chaired a task force on reducing government regulation, and Al Gore worked to streamline government, speed up the information highway and enhance environmental protection under Bill Clinton. Dick Cheney chaired an energy task force and played a substantial role in coordinating the war on terror and the war in Iraq. Now Joe Biden will chair a task force on the well-being of the middle class. In his interview with Larry King, he described the role he hoped to play as "counselor in chief."
Biden is getting promising early reviews. In the December NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, 45% had positive feelings about him, 25% were neutral and 23% were negative. But good feelings about President-elect Barack Obama ran higher, with two-thirds expressing a positive opinion and only 16% a negative one.
Views about Dick Cheney, however, are much more negative. In the same poll, 21% reported having positive feelings about Cheney, 18% were neutral, and 58% were negative--including 40% who had "very negative" feelings toward him.
It's been a long road down. Americans greeted Cheney's selection positively in 2000 when he was named vice president. Fifty-one percent had a favorable opinion in a July 2000 Gallup poll, and only 11% held an unfavorable one. A solid majority (57%) said he was qualified. Cheney's ratings rose after Sept. 11, and as late as the start of the 2004 campaign a solid majority (56%) approved of the way he was doing his job. Fifty-one percent wanted George W. Bush to keep him on the ticket. Throughout the Bush presidency, the president's ratings were slightly more positive than the vice president's. Now, as his time in office draws to a close, only around three in 10 in most polls give Cheney a positive job approval rating.
When asked about his low approval ratings last week, Cheney told Chris Wallace: "We didn't set out to achieve the highest level of polls that we could during the course of this administration. We set out to do what we thought was necessary and essential for the country."
Good advice for his successor.
Karlyn Bowman is a senior fellow at AEI.