01/23/2013 02:14 pm ET Updated Mar 25, 2013

The Reelection of Joe Biden to the Strange Office of Vice President

On January 21, President Barack Obama became the seventeenth president to be inaugurated to a second term, joining the elite club of two-term presidents, which includes the likes of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Ronald Reagan. In sharp contrast to this, Joe Biden became the twelfth man inaugurated to a second term as vice president. He joins a less elite coterie, the ranks of Daniel Tompkins, Thomas Riley Marshall, John Nance Garner, and Spiro Agnew.

The vice presidency is a very peculiar office. John Adams, the nation's first vice president, called the office "the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived of his imagination conceived." The only official duties of the vice president are to assume the office of the president in the event the president becomes incapacitated or dies, and to serve as president of the U.S. Senate. In that capacity, the vice president can preside over the U.S. Senate. However, the VP rarely presides over the Senate, delegating that duty to the Senate president pro tempore. He does, however, attend sessions wherein his vote would break a tie.

Over the past two centuries, the nation has had some very colorful vice presidents. One such vice president was Daniel D. Tompkins (1817-1825). Tompkins suffered from alcoholism which was thought to be the result of a decade-long struggle to get the U.S. Congress to reimburse him for money he used from his personal account to fund his state's militia while he was governor of New York (he would often preside over the Senate drunk). Then there was Richard M. Johnson (1837-1841). Faced with financial turmoil, Johnson took a leave of absence from the vice presidency to open a tavern and spa.

In 2008 Barack Obama chose Joe Biden as his running mate to appeal to middle-class and blue-collar voters. Biden is the product of a middle-class upbringing and his orations often strike a resonant chord with middle- and working-class voters. Biden was also selected for his foreign policy prowess, having chaired the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

As vice president, Biden has been a loyal foot-soldier for Obama. He has been an ideological compatriot, fully supporting the administration's agenda.

While it is considered commonplace today for the president and vice president to have a harmonious relationship, and see eye-to-eye on most major issues, this was not always the case. Charles Fairbanks for example was nominated as vice president in 1904 to complement Theodore Roosevelt. Fairbanks was an old guard conservative while Roosevelt hailed from the progressive bloodline of the Republican Party. Fairbanks opposed much of Roosevelt's domestic agenda, which was known as "The Square Deal." When Fairbanks sought the Republican presidential nomination to succeed Roosevelt in 1908, Roosevelt gave his coveted endorsement to his Secretary of War, William Howard Taft, who eventual won the Republican nomination.

President Calvin Coolidge and Vice President Charles G. Dawes also had an antagonistic relationship. It began in 1925 when both Coolidge and Dawes were inaugurated. At that time in history both the president and vice president gave inaugural addresses on the same day. Dawes's inaugural address took the form of a fiery and controversial lecture about the fecklessness of the U.S. Senate rules. The press gave Dawes's inaugural diatribe almost as much coverage as Coolidge's inaugural address. Dawes added to the tension by sending the president a letter stating that he would not be attending Cabinet meetings.

Vice President John Nance Garner (1933-1941), who served with President Franklin D. Roosevelt, was a business-oriented Democrat from rural Texas. Garner came to think that Roosevelt had veered too far to the left ideologically. He even called his domestic programs "foolishness." Vice President Garner sought the Democratic presidential nomination in 1940, only to be resoundingly defeated by Roosevelt, and in turn, Roosevelt selected a new vice presidential running mate, Secretary of Agriculture Henry A. Wallace.

Newly reelected Vice President Joe Biden has hinted that he is likely to seek the Democratic Party nomination for the presidency in 2016. However, unlike recent Vice Presidents George H.W. Bush and Al Gore, Biden is not the favorite of rank-and-file Democrats, nor is he the favorite of the party's high command to succeed Obama. While it is true that most Democrats view Biden favorably, polls show U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to be the overwhelming frontrunner, despite the fact that Biden has formidable favorability numbers (over 70 percent).

It is of particular interest to note that there is a striking similitude between Joe Biden and Alben Barkley, the vice president under Harry S. Truman. Like Biden, Barkley was a long-time U.S. senator and loyal polemicist for the Democratic Party's ideology. Barkley, like Biden, came from a humble background, and like Biden, was known for his oratorical prowess. Barkley had represented Kentucky in the U.S. Senate for twenty-two years, rising to the position of Senate majority leader. Like Biden, Democrats viewed Barkley favorably. In fact, he delivered the keynote address at the party's national convention on three separate occasions. In 1952, at age seventy-five, Barkley sought his party's nomination to succeed President Truman, but was unable to translate his loyal service to the Democratic Party into frontrunner status. Barkley ran a redoubtable campaign, securing endorsements from prominent members of the Democratic establishment, but suffered an immutable blow when prominent labor leaders claimed that he was too old to be president. Barkley was not able to salvage his candidacy and came in fourth place at the Democratic convention.

Biden will likely barnstorm the nation campaigning for Democratic candidates in the 2014 mid-term elections, collecting chits and showing the Democratic Party that he has the vigor and stamina to be their nominee. He will not be alone, as a cavalcade of prospective Democratic presidential candidates will likely join him on the hustings.