Vice President Joe Biden is believed to be seriously contemplating a bid for the Democratic Presidential nomination. Should he enter the race, one of his opponents would be former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton who served under President Barack Obama. If Biden enters the race, Obama will likely not endorse either candidate. It may seem awkward if the President does not endorse his hand-picked number two to succeed him, but in actuality, Obama would be following precedent. In fact, only two incumbent Presidents who were not up for re-election in the Twentieth Century endorsed his Vice President for the nomination to succeed him.
Today, the President and Vice President are almost always simpatico politically. The Vice President is expected to carry out the President's wishes rather than harbor his own agenda. However, it was not always that way. In 1904, the Republican Party was comprised of two bloodlines, progressives and conservatives. President Theodore Roosevelt hailed from the Progressive Wing. At the time, the delegates to the party's National Convention chose the Vice Presidential nominee (Today, the delegates simply ratify the choice of the party's Presidential nominee). A majority of the delegates hailed from the conservative flank and chose U.S. Senator Charles Fairbanks (R-IN), a conservative stalwart, to be Roosevelt's runningmate. Roosevelt had advocated for the progressive U.S. Representative Robert R. Hilt (R-IL) over Fairbanks.
As Vice President, Fairbanks was hostile to Roosevelt's domestic agenda, which was nicknamed: "The Square Deal." Consequently, Roosevelt gave Fairbanks little responsibility. Fairbanks sought the nomination to succeed Roosevelt as President in 1908. Roosevelt actively supported U.S. Secretary of War William Howard Taft, who he saw as the heir apparent to his progressive legacy. Roosevelt used his political influence to secure the nomination at the convention for Taft, dissuading delegates from selecting Fairbanks.
In 1952, President Harry S. Truman dropped his re-election bid after being embarrassed in the New Hampshire primary by U.S. Senator Estes Kefauver (D-TN). Kefauver won 12 of the 15 Democratic primaries. However, at the time, the preponderance of the delegates were selected at the convention, not in the primaries.
The Democratic Establishment detested Kefauver, a maverick. He had come to national political stardom for his role as Chairman of a Special U.S. Senate Committee that held hearings on organized crime. However, there was a "Stop Kefauver" movement in the party as Truman and the Democratic high command were incensed at Kefauver's tethering of Democratic office holders and power brokers with members of the mafia. In response, Truman endorsed the candidacy of his Vice President Alben Barkley in an attempt to derail the Kefauver candidacy. Truman's handpicked chairman of the Democratic National Committee, Frank E. McKinney, followed Truman's lead in endorsing Barkley.
Many party regulars also joined Truman in supporting Barkley. However, Barkley was 74 years old and many delegates believed he was too old to garner the nomination. Vice President Barkley suffered an immutable blow when prominent labor leaders claimed that he was too old to be president. Barkley was unable to salvage his candidacy and came in fourth place at the Democratic Convention. The nomination went to Illinois Governor Adlai Stevenson instead. The 74-year old Barkley did not go quietly into retirement, however. Two years later, he won an open U.S. Senate seat in Kentucky.
In 1960,Vice President Richard M. Nixon won the Republican nomination unopposed. New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller had flirted with the nomination, but chose not to run. Despite the lack of opposition during the Republican primary process, the popular President Dwight D. Eisenhower did not immediately offer his endorsement to Nixon.
With Nixon the only Republican running, Eisenhower was asked if he would support Nixon. He gave an opaque answer: "The only thing I know about the Presidency the next time is this - I can't run."
Despite Nixon's pleas for an early endorsement, Eisenhower was trying to stay "above partisanship" and wanted to avoid being seen as a spokesman for the Nixon Campaign. In addition, he wanted to make it clear that he was in charge, and that he would not abdicate his Presidential responsibilities to Nixon to bolster Nixon's image.
Eisenhower inadvertently impaired the Nixon campaign after a reporter asked the President: "Give us an example of a major idea of his that you have adopted." Eisenhower answered: "If you give me a week I might think of one. I don't remember." Nixon's Democratic opponent, John F. Kennedy, used the exchange against Nixon in a campaign commercial. Eisenhower eventually endorsed Nixon and campaigned for him after the Vice President pocketed the GOP Presidential nomination.
In 1968, President Lyndon B. Johnson chose not to seek another term as President after nearly being upset in the New Hampshire Primary by U.S. Senator Eugene McCarty (D-MN). With Johnson out of the race, Vice President Hubert Humphrey entered. U.S. Senator Robert F. Kennedy (D-NY) was also entered the race at the time. Kennedy and McCarthy both favored withdrawal from Vietnam, while Humphrey supported Johnson's policy.
Johnson had become unpopular with many Democratic primary voters who opposed his escalation of U.S. troops in Vietnam. Many members of the Johnson administration as well as many Party regulars who were loyal to Johnson, switched their allegiances to Humphrey. However, Johnson himself did not endorse Humphrey, though he did give him political advice. Johnson's endorsement could actually have hurt Humphrey with some undecided primary voters who had grown wary over Vietnam. In fact, Iowa Governor Harold Hughes and Vermont Governor Philip H. Hoff unsuccessfully urged Humphrey to resign as Vice President to separate himself from the unpopular administration.
Johnson did not officially endorse Humphrey until September 17th, less than two months prior to the General Election. This was well after the Vice President captured the Democratic nomination, raising speculation that Johnson did not want Humphrey to succeed him.
Even after the endorsement, Johnson mostly stayed off the campaign trail until a few weeks prior to the election. Johnson had become inflamed with the Vice President for a speech he made just two weeks after Johnson's endorsement in which he announced that as President he would unilaterally halt the bombing in North Vietnam "as an acceptable risk for peace." However, once Johnson went on the campaign hustings, he proved a net positive for Humphrey, especially helping Humphrey win Johnson's home state of Texas.
In 1988, President Ronald Reagan did not endorse his Vice President, George H. W. Bush, in his bid for the GOP Presidential nomination. Reagan had a conflict here, in that he was close to some of Bush's opponents. Reagan was in a similar predicament to Obama, in that his Vice President was being challenged by his former Secretary of State, Alexander Haig. In addition, U.S. Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole (R-KS) was also running and Reagan did not want to effectuate discord with him, as Reagan needed him as his chief lieutenant in the Senate.
Other candidates running for the nomination included U.S. Representative Jack Kemp (R-NY), the co-author of Reagan's tax cut plan in the House, and U.S. Senator Paul Laxalt (R-NV) who was one of just two U.S. Senators (The other was Jesse Helms (R-NC)) who had endorsed Reagan in his 1976 bid for the nomination against incumbent President Gerald R. Ford. Laxalt had also served Reagan as General Chairman of the Republican Party.
Reagan finally endorsed Bush in May of 1988, once the last challenger to Bush, televangelist Pat Robertson, suspended his candidacy. However, Reagan's endorsement was less than enthusiastic, just one paragraph in a speech at a Republican fundraiser, and he mispronounced Bush's name.
Unlike some of the aforementioned examples, in 1999, Bill Clinton delivered an unambiguous endorsement for Vice President Al Gore over U.S. Senator Bill Bradley (D-NJ). Clinton had seen Gore as his heir apparent since selecting him as Vice President in 1992. Gore was in many respects the political mirror image of Clinton. Both men were young, from the Upper South, and both were ideological centrists. Clinton called Gore: "The most effective and influential Vice President who ever served."
If Joe Biden enters the race for the Democratic Presidential nomination, Obama will likely not endorse his Vice President unless and until he actually garners the nomination. If this is the case, Obama will not be entering uncharted electoral territory. In fact, he will simply be following the actions of many of his predecessors. Not all Vice Presidents are endorsed by their President in the nomination battle. In rare cases, like in 1908 with Theodore Roosevelt, the President overtly works against the nomination of their Vice President. The most prevalent action is for the President to remain neutral during the nomination process. If the Vice President musters the nomination, the President then usually announces his support for his candidacy and campaigns for him to varying degrees.