Evan Vucci/AP
Vice President Dick Cheney

Cheney Prepares to Hand Over Office He Helped Redefine

November 13, 2008 05:59 PM
by Christopher Coats
Outgoing Vice President Dick Cheney welcomes Vice President-elect Joe Biden to a professional role very much of his own making.

Cheney Leaves Impression, but Few Fingerprints

As Cheney welcomes Biden to his new residence at the Naval Observatory grounds this week, it is clear that the lifelong public servant is also introducing him to a role that he has redefined in his own image over the last eight years.

Arguably the most involved and influential vice president in U.S. history, the outgoing Cheney has spent his two terms in office molding the position into one deeply involved in the day-to-day operations of the federal government and established it as existing neither in the executive or legislative branches of government.

Using an assertive approach to governance, a broad network of government officials thanks to decades spent in public service, and executive orders from President George W. Bush, Cheney has recast the role of the vice president.

This brash approach earned Cheney few admirers—his approval ratings have remained at historic lows throughout his time in office. However, Cheney did succeed in expanding the influence and power of an office once thought so insignificant that an old joke quips:

“Did you hear the one about the parents who had two sons? One went off to sea. The other became vice president, and neither was ever heard from again.”

Historical Context: A History of frustration with the office

Cheney’s hands-on approach to the office is hardly surprising when considering he once worked under former President Gerald Ford as chief of staff, who once referred to his time as vice president as the worst months of his life.

Since Ford’s term in office, the vice president has evolved with each passing administration to become an increasingly more important part of the executive branch, with the vice president finally moving into the West Wing under the leadership of former President Jimmy Carter, according to the AP.

Although the position became a more prominent part of the political ticket, the role was often seen as a defender and supporter of each respective president’s policies, rather than an active catalyst for change and legislation.

However, all of this changed when George W. Bush tapped Cheney to head up his team charged with finding a running mate for the 2000 presidential election.

After the team decided that he was the best choice, Cheney followed Bush to the White House in 2000 and has since embarked on one of the most influential vice presidencies in American history.

Chronicled in a multi-part series in The Washington Post last year, Cheney’s tenure included serving “as gatekeeper for Supreme Court nominees, referee of Cabinet turf disputes, arbiter of budget appeals, editor of tax proposals and regulator in chief of water flows in his native West.”

Background: ‘A different understanding’

Upon entering office in 2000, Cheney was briefed by former Vice President Dan Quayle. Quayle described the fundraising and public functions that awaited Cheney as vice president. Cheney reportedly responded, "I have a different understanding with the president."

This “different understanding” has allowed Cheney to become an active member of a number of key policy decisions, namely the U.S. role in Iraq since 2001 and issues surrounding the treatment of prisoners in U.S. custody.

According to White House Chief of Staff Joshua B. Bolten, this understanding allowed for a mandate that gave Cheney “access to ‘every table and every meeting,’ making his voice heard in ‘whatever area the vice president feels he wants to be active in,’” The Washington Post reported.

However, just how much say Cheney has had in these efforts remains unclear, thanks to an environment of secrecy, also of the vice president’s making. Last year, it emerged that Cheney had opted out of annual reports to the National Archives, required of all offices of the Executive Branch, by stating his office did not actually exist there.

While this new definition allowed Cheney to essentially classify information as he deemed necessary, Executive Order 13292, issued by President Bush on March 25, 2003, provided the opportunity for him to declassify information as well.

An amendment to a Clinton-era executive order, Executive Order 13292 became a topic of interest when Cheney’s office became the focus of the investigation into the leak of the identity of a classified CIA agent, Valerie Plame Wilson.

Reactions: Low approval ratings; qualified support

Although this access and secrecy has allowed Cheney to mold the position with little public scrutiny, it has earned him few fans in and out of the government. In addition to a steadily decreasing approval rating and a dismal public image, Cheney has earned scathing criticism from opponents and qualified support from his admirers.

Expressing frustration after Cheney exempted himself from the rules surrounding classified documents, supporter Jonah Goldberg wrote, “Cheney's argument amounts to a convenient rationalization for his own secretive style.”

On the other side of the aisle, Biden called Cheney “the most dangerous vice president we've had probably in American history,” during his debate with Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin. Biden’s words echo his party’s stance on Cheney’s record, and suggest that he doesn’t plan to continue Cheney’s approach to governance.

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