This year’s election represents a bipartisan test in presidential mortality. Donald Trump, 74, is the oldest president in history, while Joe Biden, 77, is the oldest presidential candidate in history. Whoever wins in November will be the oldest president ever elected. If Biden wins, he will become the first octogenarian president.
We are now living through the longest period in US history without a president dying in office. It has happened before on eight separate occasions, not to mention the 19 times a president nearly died. Eventually our luck could run out, and Americans must take that possibility seriously as they cast their votes in 2020.
Not since 1944 has the vice presidential choice proved this significant. In the final years of World War II, the Democratic Party bosses knew that Franklin Roosevelt was in very poor health. They viewed the incumbent vice president, Henry Wallace, as far too friendly to both the ultra-liberal labor movement and the Soviet Union, so they replaced him on the Democratic ticket with Harry Truman. Their concerns were justified — FDR died less than four months into his fourth term, and the relatively unknown Harry Truman became president.
Even knowing about FDR’s poor health, few party insiders regarded Truman as an integral member of the administration, much less the heir apparent. During Truman’s 82 days as vice president — he met FDR only twice — he didn’t get a single intelligence briefing, never set foot in the map room where the war was being planned, met no foreign leaders, was not briefed on the outcome of the Yalta meeting with Prime Minister Winston Churchill of Britain and the head of the Soviet Union, Joseph Stalin, and was never briefed about the Manhattan Project, the American-led effort to develop the atomic bomb.
When FDR died on April 12, 1945, Truman inherited a greater burden and with less preparation than any other president in history. The war in Europe persisted, and while the Germans were on the defensive and victory seemed likely, it was unclear what that would look like and at what price. Hitler was still alive and commanding the Nazis from his bunker. Roosevelt’s relationship with Churchill had been complex, and the two had not seen eye-to-eye on Russia. Stalin appeared to be reneging on every promise he had made at Yalta and was proving unpredictable at best, villainous at worst. There was also the Pacific theater, which raged on. War with Japan was still a fierce fight, and the United States was faced with the grim prospect of having to move over 1 million men from the European theater for an invasion of Japan in November. A ferocious battle for Okinawa had already commenced. The new president had to grapple with how to make use of a new weapon capable of unleashing unimaginable destruction.
Truman had the twin burdens of having to play rapid catch-up and follow one of the greatest figures in American history. We arguably got lucky in that Truman did a remarkable job, making some of the toughest decisions in his first nine months that ended the war and shaped the postwar order.
Never has a man been less prepared for president and performed better than Harry Truman. This was also the only abrupt transition that was predictable, but because we got lucky, we rarely think of it as an applicable modern case study. We should, but for different reasons.
Unlike Truman, the next vice president will probably be thought of as a potential next president on day one. In the case of Joe Biden, who has already floated the idea of serving only one term, should he win, the very choice will indicate a nod to his preferred successor and an early investment in his legacy. The vice president will attract an unprecedented level of attention from the public and around the world.
Historically, the vice presidency was seen as a largely insignificant office, or not “worth more than a warm bucket of spit,” as one of its occupants once remarked. Constitutionally it remains true that the office is limited, in that a vice president presides over the Senate and breaks a tie in the vote. But over the past 40 years, there has been a normative shift that began during the Reagan administration. Since then, we have seen the role and significance of the vice president change dramatically and reach its historic climax, first with Joe Biden and now with Mike Pence.
Even without an abrupt transition, the fact that today’s vice presidents have evolved into far more powerful figures means we are not just electing someone to preside over the Senate and be a heartbeat away from the presidency, something which is particularly important given the age of the next president. We are electing a proper deputy. Today’s vice presidents are integrated into the administration and oversee vast and meaningful portfolios, as evidenced by Dick Cheney, Joe Biden, and Mike Pence, who oversees the White House’s COVID-19 task force.
The fact that there probably won’t be an incumbent president running in 2024 — Biden has described himself as a “transition candidate” — makes the vice presidency even more important in 2020. The vice presidential nominee will be the presumptive front-runner for their party’s nomination in 2024. In the case of Joe Biden, this choice represents perhaps his best opportunity to shape the direction of the Democratic Party and indeed the nation.
This presidential election is tailor-made to make the vice presidency more consequential. Trump willprobably continue with Pence. As Biden wrestles with a tactical choice versus one of policy alignment, he should remember that, should he win, his choice of running mate may end up being the most significant decision of his presidency.
Jared Cohen is author of “Accidental Presidents: Eight Men Who Changed America.” Follow him on Twitter @jaredcohen.