As a student of American Political Science and of History I’d just like to add my two cents to this discussion because I believe there is a lot of misinformation out there and that, believe it or not, times are changing.
Historically, yes, United States Vice-Presidents have not had much power or authority. It has been mostly a ceremonial position for most of our countries history. John Adams called it “the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived”, President Wilson, in his American government exposition, was embarrassed as to how little could be said about it, and Vice-President John Garner (under FDR) said it was “hardly worth a pitcher of spit”.
However, one most reevaluate the modern Vice-Presidency as it has undergone change over time. Vice-President Richard Nixon was the first one to increase the role of the Vice-President; this is due to his own personal ambition and because of President Eisenhower. Nixon sat on and chaired both cabinet and National Security Council meetings. He was also sent on many foreign diplomatic missions and acted to coordinate administration agendas. While this may not seem as much it is the stepping stones of the Vice-President evolution.
Vice-President Lyndon Johnson, under President Kennedy, also continued these activities. This was another man with immense personal ambition who couldn’t be told to sit. Johnson was active in anti-discrimination coordination and Kennedy’s space exploration program. Lastly, Johnson was essential to legislative efforts such as meeting with lobbyists and making deals, something we would see much more of during his Presidency (he was the former Majority Leader, I believe). I’ll also add that Johnson hated being the Vice-President, “I detested every minute of it”.
President Carter continued this trend with his Vice-President Walter Mondale who was actually the first Vice-President to have his own office in the West Wing. Carter gave Mondale as much authority to review documents, attend meetings, or participate in any study as he had; Mondale used these tools to shape some of the administration’s policy and influence Congress.
President Reagan had Vice-President George Bush Sr. manage and oversee many committees for issues such as drug enforcement, crisis management, and government relations. Additionally, Bush was kept in the loop with Reagan, would meet with him at least once a week, and attend meetings that Reagan attended.
Then there is the infamous Vice-President Dan Quayle who is so famous for the “potatoe” gaff (play Civ 4 and see where he is on a scale of leadership). Quayle was not quite as powerful of a Vice-President as he could have been but this is likely due to his low popularity (they considered dropping him from the ticket). However, Quayle went on foreign diplomatic trips, chaired a space exploration committee, and served as a Congressional liaison. However, in the general outlook of things Quayle didn’t advance the Vice-Presidency.
The Vice-Presidential trend continued with President Clinton’s Vice-President, Al Gore. Gore actually participated in cabinet selection and with appointments, served on committees, actively advised the President, and was very active in anything relating to science and technology (see the Internet).
Last but not least is Vice-President Dick Cheney, under the Bush administration. Not only did Cheney shoot a man but he is regarded as the most powerful Vice-President, active in expanding the power of the Vice-Presidency. He started by leading a task force on American energy policy and counter-terrorism, next to Karl Rove he was Bush’s main advisor, and legislative liaison. Cheney, like many modern Vice-Presidents attends many government and administration meetings (especially relating to National Security). Additionally, Cheney was a major advisor directly after 9/11 advising the President to take strong national security measures.
Additionally, the deaths of a number of American Presidents bring into light the importance of the Vice-Presidency. Think of how differently Reconstruction could have been had it not been for Vice-President Andrew Johnson who barely dodged being impeached out of office by only one vote due to his conflict with Congress. Try to imagine how different history would have been after World War II if the United States didn’t have President Truman take over after FDR. Ask if there would have been a Marshall Plan, would we have used the nuke, would there be a NATO, what would have happened in Korea? Consider if the United States would have entered into the Vietnam War had President Kennedy not been shot and Johnson taken office. History has cemented the importance of the Vice-Presidency; we have only to realize this.
We come to realize that the Vice-President is a much more powerful role then previously expressed. However, the degree of power and influence depends much on the President, the Vice-President, and the times. As time has passed the role of the Vice-Presidency has grown and their authority has increased. It is no doubt that we as a culture need to reevaluate what the role of the Vice-President really is and to better respect and understand what they have become.