How presidents have helped — or hurt — their VPs on the campaign trail

“I have been very proud, very proud indeed to serve as vice president for President Ronald Reagan,” said then-vice president George H.W. Bush as he introduced the president at a campaign rally in California in 1988. Mr. Reagan was in the final stretch of his second term and helping Mr. Bush on the campaign trail as he made his bid for the White House.

“Everything George Bush and I have done these last eight years, everything, could be lost faster than you could say furlough,”  Mr. Reagan said in his remarks that day. “Go out and win one last one for the Gipper.”

Mr. Bush thanked Reagan after he won. “I don’t believe there’s a case in modern presidential politics where a president has worked so hard to help someone else achieve this office,” he said on November 9 at the White House as president-elect, with Mr. Reagan standing beside him.

Now as the 2020 race heads into the summer, another former president is throwing support behind his former running mate.

“Choosing Joe to be my vice president was one of the best decisions I ever made, and he became a close friend. And I believe Joe has all the qualities we need in a President right now,” former President Barack Obama said in his video endorsement for Joe Biden in April. “I will see you on the campaign trail as soon as I can.”

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President Barack Obama, left, shares a laugh with Vice President Joe Biden, right, during the Duke Georgetown NCAA college basketball game Saturday, Jan. 30, 2010, in Washington.


The Biden camp has long embraced the relationship with Mr. Obama. Biden regularly talks about what the Obama administration accomplished during its eight years in office, his team frequently touts his endorsement online, and even retweets the former president.

Despite a campaign season in the shadows of a global pandemic, Mr. Obama very well may be one of Biden’s strongest surrogates. When Mr. Obama left office in 2017, his approval rating was 59%. Biden did not run in 2016, but Mr. Obama did hit the campaign trail for Hillary Clinton, his former secretary of state. Since then, he remains popular with 57% favorability in a recent Monmouth poll,, including 92% among Democrats and 56% among independents.

A former president throwing his support behind his past vice president is nothing new — President Andrew Jackson’s vice president, Martin Van Buren, in 1836 received his predecessor’s endorsement.  But as Mr. Obama goes to bat for Biden, the idea that a former president plans to actively campaign for his former vice president is not always a given. And in some cases, candidates have even shied away from a predecessor’s help.

Winning one last one for the Gipper

Mr. Reagan’s endorsement of Mr. Bush took place during a Republican fundraiser in May 1988, but he hardly seemed fully committed.

“Many of the Republicans at the dinner here tonight expressed surprise that Mr. Reagan had not delivered a longer or more effusive endorsement of his Vice President,” the New York Times wrote about the event. “In fact, the endorsement consisted of only one paragraph, in which Mr. Reagan mispronounced the vice president’s name, saying it as if it rhymed with ‘rush.'” The Washington Post reported, “there were puzzled looks and questions last night about why the president said so little.”

As Reagan’s biographer Craig Shirley pointed out, the Reagans and the Bushes were never close, having faced off in a bitter 1980 primary race as well as holding ideological differences.

President Ronald Reagan, at podium, addresses flag waving supporters during an airport rally, Oct. 27, 1988, Springfield, Missouri. Pres. Reagan made the campaign stop in support of Vice President George H. W. Bush, candidate for President and other Republicans.


“Reagan had to be dragged kicking and screaming and finally, the only reason he went out to campaign for Bush in the fall of 1988 was that his political advisers appealed to his political legacy and said ‘look, this is going to reflect on you Mr. President. If Bush loses then people are going to see this as a repudiation of Reaganism, whereas if Bush wins they’re going to say it’s a validation,'” said Shirley.

The impeached president and his former running mate

In 2000, following the Monica Lewinsky scandal, Vice President Al Gore rarely mentioned Bill Clinton.

Mr. Clinton, whose charisma made him a strong campaigner, was relegated to offstage efforts like private fundraisers even though his approval ratings were above 60% for much of the year.

The Gore campaign finally put Mr. Clinton out on the stump in the last month of the campaign when Gore and George W. Bush were neck and neck.

In May 2000, Mr. Clinton told The New York Times he was not offended by Gore’s decision not to enlist him but said “we should be proud” of the administration. After Gore’s loss, The Washington Post reported that throughout the campaign, Mr. Clinton “was mystified and at times angered” by Gore’s refusal to run on the successes of the administration’s record.

Democratic presidential hopeful Bill Clinton, left, and vice presidential running mate Sen. Al Gore go on a jogging tour of Little Rock, Arkansas, on Friday, July 11, 1992.


When asked why he sidelined Mr. Clinton, Gore said, “What everybody I talked with out on the campaign trail told me is, they wanted to hear about the future and not the past.”

He said it had nothing to do with Mr. Clinton’s impeachment or Lewinsky.

“Without making any excuses, I do sometimes honestly believe that if the Supreme Court had voted five to four the other way, some of those same people would say, ‘boy, that was a smart strategy, he really threaded the needle on that,'” Gore said.

Eisenhower offers quips before endorsements

For Richard Nixon’s first run at the White House, President Dwight Eisenhower was little help to his two-term vice president. In January 1960, Eisenhower was asked at a press conference if he would support Nixon as his successor. Eisenhower responded, “The only thing I know about the presidency the next time is this — I can’t run.”

At a press conference that August, Mr. Eisenhower was asked if he could give an example of a major Nixon idea he adopted to which Mr. Eisenhower quipped, “If you give me a week, I might think of one.” John F. Kennedy’s campaign seized on the line, turning it into an ad.

Mr. Nixon ended up receiving the nomination again eight years later. In July 1968, The New York Times headline read “Eisenhower Backs Nixon.” It noted the former president praised Nixon in a statement for his experience, decisiveness, and intelligence. “Observers agreed that the statement was one of the warmest public tributes made by General Eisenhower about the man who served him for eight years as vice president,” the article read.

The wartime president not seeking re-election

Mr. Nixon’s opponent, Hubert Humphrey, also happened to be the current vice president.  Damaged by the Vietnam War, Mr. Johnson decided not to seek reelection after nearly losing the New Hampshire primary in March to Senator Eugene McCarthy. Robert F. Kennedy decided to jump in the race as an antiwar candidate and swept many of the primaries, but was assassinated on June 4 after winning the California primary. Humphrey, who had not appeared on any primary ballots, secured the nomination on the first ballot with support from the Democratic establishment.

According to biographer Arnold Offner, Humphrey needed to stay away from Mr. Johnson because of his stance on the Vietnam War, and he also needed to chart his own path. But he remained too loyal throughout most of the campaign. Mr. Johnson had previously threatened to destroy Humphrey if he parted ways over the war. Humphrey toed the line until a September speech in which he suggested a bombing halt might be workable. Mr. Johnson immediately denounced the idea. He also cut off funding and worked to undermine him.

DNC Johnson Humphrey
Lyndon B. Johnson, left, shown with Hubert Humphrey at the speakers stand during Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey, on August 27, 1964. 


“Johnson could have tipped the election to Humphrey, I think,” said Offner “There’s a good chance he would have if he’d just given him free rein and had not tolerated Nixon and accepted Nixon’s flattery.” Offner  concluded Mr. Johnson wanted Mr. Nixon to win.

Mr. Johnson did eventually officially endorse Humphrey with a short address on October 10, 1968. But they did not make a joint campaign appearance until that November in Mr. Johnson’s home state of Texas.

During his speech, Mr. Johnson praised Humphrey as a “healer and is a builder, and will represent all the people all the time.”

One-term presidents on the campaign trail 

Not all presidents have eight years in office before their former vice presidents get a chance to run.

In 1980, President Jimmy Carter lost his reelection bid to Mr. Reagan, and in May 1982, he said he would support Walter Mondale, a full nine months before Mondale officially launched his campaign. But as the Democratic primary was underway, reporters noted Mondale rarely mentioned Carter, except in Mr. Carter’s home state of Georgia.

“In other parts of the country, many Democrats view his connection to the Carter presidency as a political liability, and Mondale started his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination talking up his differences with his former boss,” a Washington Post article said. “He has been accused of running from his association with the Carter administration, but he and aides deny it.”

Democratic Presidential candidate Walter Mondale, center, is all smiles at a barbecue at the home of Betty Talmadge as he is flanked by former President Jimmy Carter and his wife Rosalynn Carter, Saturday, Sept. 29, 1984, Lovejoy, Ga.


During the primary, Democratic rival Gary Hart attacked Mondale for his role in the Carter administration. Hart accused Mondale of being “part of an Administration that was ‘weak,’ ‘inept,’ ‘uncertain’ and marked by ‘days of shame’ in Iran,” reported The New York Times.

 Mr. Carter spoke at the National Democratic Convention but planned to “keep out of Walter F. Mondale’s spotlight,” read a report by UPI, ahead of the event. 
And in 2000, George H.W. Bush had to choose between his vice president Dan Quayle and his own son, George W. Bush. 
 ”I never imagined in my wildest dreams that I would be running against George Bush’s son,” Quayle told The New York Times. ”Things would have been a lot different had that not happened. A lot. It was very awkward. I was very loyal to President Bush and the whole family.”

 Quayle ultimately dropped out of the race in September 1999, before any primaries, citing Mr. Bush’s fundraising dominance, according to The Baltimore Sun.

Campaigning and the coronavirus

Now as the coronavirus turns traditional campaigning on its head, it’s unclear if or when Mr. Obama will actually get the chance to hit the campaign trail with alongside Biden. But with the pandemic upending daily norms, Mr. Obama has recently taken a more prominent role in the spotlight. And while he has avoided publicly calling out the current president by name since leaving office, his veiled criticism has gained national attention.

In an online commencement address in May, Mr. Obama said the pandemic has “fully torn back the curtain on the idea that so many of the folks in charge know what they’re doing. A lot of them aren’t even pretending to be in charge.”

That same day he also addressed high school graduates where he made another pointed remark, saying a lot of “so-called grown-ups” are doing what feels good, convenient and easy, “which is why things are so screwed up.”

The Trump administration immediately took notice. “I’m glad Mr. Obama has a new job as Joe Biden’s press secretary,” said White House Adviser Peter Navarro in an interview.

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