Blogs > Ronald L. Feinman > The Rarity of the Two-Term VP

Feb 9, 2023

The Rarity of the Two-Term VP

tags: presidential history,executive branch,vice presidents,Kamala Harris

John Adams, portrait by Gilbert Stuart c. 1800-1815. Image National Gallery of Art

Ronald L. Feinman is the author of Assassinations, Threats, and the American Presidency: From Andrew Jackson to Barack Obama (Rowman-Littlefield Publishers, 2015).  A paperback edition is now available.

America has had 49 individuals who have served in the vice presidency, while only 45 people have served as President of the United States

A total of only 9 vice presidents have served two complete terms of office under the same president.  Only two individuals had that distinction before the 20th century.

John Adams served as vice president under George Washington (1789-1797), and then succeeded him as president.  He expressed frustration and great dissatisfaction with a position he considered superfluous.  He would serve one term as president, and then be defeated by his own vice president, Thomas Jefferson. This was the first and only such case, as under the nascent party system and prevailing Electoral College rules, the vice presidential winner was the opposition party nominee for president. This situation, an invitation to a divided executive branch, was soon resolved by the passage of the 12th Amendment in 1804.

Daniel Tompkins served as vice president under James Monroe (1817-1825), and then died just months after his service in that office. He had served as Governor of New York for the ten years previous.  For much of his time in the vice presidency he was in poor health and debt, and died at the young age of 50, earning the distinction of being both the youngest vice president at death and the one retired for the shortest time among any vice president who finished their term, only surviving 99 days.

Never again for a century did a vice president serve under the same president for two complete terms, until Thomas Marshall did so under Woodrow Wilson (1913-1921).  Sadly, Marshall was ignored by Wilson and not given any assignments. When Wilson suffered a paralytic stroke in 1919, Marshall was kept in the dark about his condition. First Lady Edith Bolling Galt Wilson conducted Cabinet meetings, while Marshall was not allowed to see Wilson or know details of his health condition.

The fourth vice president to serve two terms under the same president was John Nance Garner, who was often unhappy under President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1933-1941), and opposed much of FDR’s New Deal agenda, particularly his “Court Packing” scheme in the spring of 1937.  Thinking that FDR was going to retire after the standard two terms, Garner announced for president in 1940, only to discover that FDR was allowing himself to be “drafted” for president for a third term. This caused a major breach between the conservative Southern vice president and FDR, leading to Secretary of Agriculture Henry A. Wallace’s selection as the third term vice president. Garner also came up with a uniquely nasty comment about what he thought of the vice presidency, after he had been Speaker of the House of Representatives in the two years before he became vice president.

Dwight D. Eisenhower had a vice president, Richard Nixon, who was a generation younger than himself, and allowed Nixon to take authority and leadership, which was also necessitated by Eisenhower’s three serious illnesses in 1955, 1956, and 1957.  So Nixon became the first vice president who would grow the office in a major way, allowing him to claim himself uniquely qualified to be president while winning the 1960 Republican nomination. Of course, Nixon would be defeated by John F. Kennedy and have to wait until 1968 to win the presidency.  

Ronald Reagan had George H. W. Bush, who had been his chief opponent for the 1980 Republican presidential nomination, as his vice president.  Reagan had no foreign policy experience, making Bush’s experiences as United Nations Ambassador, head of the Liaison Office to the People’s Republic of China, and Director of the Central Intelligence Agency important assets in that area.  They were not warm friends, but Bush’s role in the Reagan presidency prepared him to become the first vice president to be elected to succeed his boss since Martin Van Buren succeeded Andrew Jackson in 1837.

Bill Clinton had a close relationship with his vice president, Al Gore, with whom he made up the youngest team in the White House in American history. Gore particularly had a great impact on environmental issues, an area where Clinton had been very lax as Governor of Arkansas.  Their relationship suffered due to Clinton’s involvement in the Monica Lewinsky scandal during their second term. Fearing association with the scandal, Gore chose not to employ Clinton in his 2000 presidential campaign.  Gore lost the highly contentious election to George W. Bush, and the loss of his and Clinton’s respective home states of Arkansas and Tennessee led to a falling out between them that only healed over time.

George W. Bush had a vice president, Dick Cheney, who had served as a Republican leader in the House of Representatives, and as Secretary of Defense under the president’s father.  His foreign policy and defense expertise made him a very powerful and influential vice president, particularly after the attacks of September 11, 2001, and the subsequent invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.  Possibly the most highly controversial and divisive vice president in American history, Cheney’s influence declined a bit in Bush’s second term. Cheney evinced no interest in going for the top job in 2008, partially due to having had four heart attacks over the previous 20 plus years.

Finally, President Barack Obama, comparatively inexperienced, chose Senator Joe Biden of Delaware, who had served 36 years in the U.S. Senate, chaired the Senate Judiciary and Foreign Relations Committees over the years, and knew most foreign leaders, as his vice president.  Biden’s friendships across the aisle and his experiences and contacts made him invaluable for Obama, and they developed what was called a “bromance.”  At times, Obama was frustrated at Biden’s tendency to talk too much, including revealing views, such as support for gay marriage, before Obama was politically prepared to take those public positions. The friendship that developed was very genuine and close, but Biden chose not to run to succeed his boss after the loss of his beloved son Beau.  However, four years later, seeing President Donald Trump as a “clear and present danger,” Biden became a contender for the presidency, and overcame adversity and barriers to become our 46th president. By many accounts, despite mixed approval ratings, Biden accomplished more in his first two years in office than any Democratic president since Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1930s and Lyndon B. Johnson in the 1960s.

If Biden chooses to run for a second term as president in 2024, it seems clear that Vice President Kamala Harris will remain on the ticket, and would, in theory, be the front runner to succeed him in 2028, bringing diversity into the office after 48 white males, as she is the first mixed race and woman vice president.

The future is impossible to predict, but is very fascinating to ponder regarding the vice presidential office.

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