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Joe Biden, the Most Powerful Vice President Since the Last Vice President

Getty/Alex Wong

A lengthy front-page story in last Friday's Washington Post offered many reasons to think Joe Biden wants to run for president—and several reasons to think he'd be pretty good at it: The vice president brings with him a populist political style, an impressive grasp of policy, and four decades' worth of friends and contacts in Democratic politics.

Readers might find themselves less impressed with an assertion buried low in Philip Rucker's report: Biden, according to unnamed historians cited in the piece, is America's most powerful vice president.

Heard that one before? Yes, and so have Walter Mondale and George H.W. Bush and even Dan Quayle. Biden's immediate predecessor may have been regularly described as the most powerful veep in history, but not even Dick Cheney's famous ability to stovepipe intelligence, steer energy policy, or hide things in man-sized safes was enough to disrupt that favorite tradition of modern politics: Hyperbolistic assessments about vice presidential power.

A brief rundown:

  • "Some historians have begun calling Biden the most powerful vice president of modern times." — Washington Post, May 2 
  • "Mr. Cheney is the most powerful vice president in history." — New York Times, 2004 
  • "Gore has pursued his agenda as the most powerful vice president in modern history." — Forbes, 1999
  • "Quayle has quietly emerged as one of the more powerful vice presidents." — CNN, 1992
  • "A White House official said Monday that 'when history is written, George Bush will go down as the most powerful vice president ever.'" — Associated Press, 1981
  • "It has become a Washington cliche to refer to [Mondale] as the most powerful Vice President in recent history." — National Journal, 1978
  • "Rockefeller will probably be the most powerful vice president of the century." — James Reston, New York Times, 1974

Perhaps they're all right, and vice presidential clout—like housing prices or the value of gold—can only go up. But even if that's not the case, I think it's a pretty good bet that some profile writer, political admirer or ideological antagonist will see fit to declare the next resident of One Observatory Circle to be way more powerful than historic pipsqueaks like Biden, Cheney, Gore, Quayle, Bush, Mondale, or Rockefeller ever were.