Opinion - Politics

Op-Ed: Finally, a real job for the vice president

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Key Points
  • President Trump has made a stunning and groundbreaking decision: he actually gave the vice president an important job, Jake Novak writes.
US President Donald Trump (L) stands behind US Vice President Mike Pence as he speaks at a news conference with members of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention(CDC) on the COVID-19 outbreak at the White House on February 26, 2020.
Andrew Caballeros-Reynolds | AFP | Getty images

In the face of what may be the most serious threat to the American homeland during his presidency, President Trump has made a stunning and groundbreaking decision: he actually gave the vice president an important job.

In this case, it's actually an urgent and highly visible job that affects the entire country.

Trump did that Wednesday night when he put Vice President Mike Pence in charge of the government's response to the coronavirus outbreak. But Trump's news conference hadn't even ended before the decision was panned by critics attacking Pence's health care policy experience, perceived obsequious relationship with Trump, and even his religious devotion.

The fact that Pence is being asked to oversee a team of medical and public health experts, not act as a doctor or create health policies himself, seemed lost on the angriest detractors.

Also lost in all the mostly partisan criticism of Trump's choice is a more important fact: Pence has just been given the most pressing and urgent role that any vice president has had in American history. Not all vice presidents have been relegated to minor roles, but nothing comes close to Pence being asked to lead the federal government's response to this immediate health and economic threat.

Coming the closest was FDR's second vice president Henry Wallace, who led the crucial Board of Economic Warfare during most of America's involvement in World War II. That job put Wallace in charge of supplying the Allied war effort with weapons, food, and other key provisions. With the war being the number one job for the Roosevelt administration from 1941 to 1945, Wallace, who also served as Commerce secretary in the administration, was effectively FDR's supply chain COO. But of course, the task of winning the war itself was mostly in the hands of military leaders like Dwight Eisenhower and FDR himself. So again, Pence is still in a relatively more important and visible position.

Usually, vice presidents become invisible or just popular punchlines. President Eisenhower set the modern standard for vice presidents when his response to a question about then-Vice President RIchard Nixon's role in major White House decision making was: "If you give me a week, I might think of one."

Of course, this historically new role also means Pence is facing a tremendous political risk and reward depending on how the coronavirus plays out here in the United States. If we see relatively few cases and no more than a small number of deaths here in the U.S., Pence will have a strong calling card if he does choose to seek the presidency in 2024.

On the other hand, he'll probably not even have enough support to enter the GOP primary race if the nation suffers a significant health catastrophe connected to the virus. Even if Pence deserves no blame in such a scenario, it will be virtually impossible for him and Trump to avoid it now.

There are still other factors at play, the biggest one being the 2020 election results. If Trump doesn't win reelection, Pence's chances to win the GOP nomination and the White House in 2024 would be greatly diminished no matter what happens with the coronavirus outbreak. The same will be true if Trump does win reelection, but the nation suffers a major economic collapse like the one that befell President George W. Bush in his second term.

Pence will also still have to prove he can be an engaging candidate to win, despite his record on this and any other issue. Right now, his strongest asset going into a potential 2024 primary run is the support he has from Trump's base compared to potential challengers like former U.N. Ambassador and South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley. His second strongest asset with traditional Republican voters is his fervent evangelical Christian faith, which can be vital in some of the early nominating contests like the Iowa caucuses.

But all of the above factors and possible scenarios underscore the truly remarkable historic story unfolding right now. For the first time in American history, a vice president is being given an enormously visible and vital role that will clearly make or break his political future.

As for Trump, he has broken presidential tradition yet again by making this decision. It won't indemnify him from severe blame if things go wrong, and no one will be surprised if he still takes a great deal of the credit if things go right. But this is Pence's game to win or lose as best he can, and there's never been a V.P. with this much on the line.