NPR recently ran an article highlighting the unusually low amount of vetoes President Obama has issued during his time in office.
Speaking more specifically, President Obama has used the presidential power of the veto only two times during his over 4 years in office thus far.
The article goes into detail about the reasons for this number being so low, but in this post I really just want to highlight how meaningful “two vetoes” really is.
“Two” doesn’t seem like particularly significant number, that is until you compare it to other modern presidents. For example, Reagan used his power of the veto 78 times during the 1980s, while Bill Clinton used this power 37 times during his time in office.
At this point some of you may object saying “Hold on, that’s not really a fair comparison! Reagan and Clinton both had 2 terms and used the veto more frequently in their second term!” which is a fair objection to make, however even ol’ George H.W. pulled out his trusty veto pen 44 times during his single term in office.
If modern comparisons doesn’t make “two vetoes” significant, here’s some historical context: every president since Martin Van Buren, who served as our president almost 175 years ago has vetoed more legislation than President Obama (with the exception of those that did not complete a full term in office)
Now, it’s important as a matter of journalistic and personal integrity for me to admit that you could have received any information I just told you from the article I talked about, however, I’m not sure even the writer of that article understands the significance of having the least amount of vetoes since Van Buren.
Allow me to explain.
You see, while Van Buren doesn’t really stick out in most Americans’ minds as being an particularly consequential president, he really and truly is an important milestone in American political history. What’s significant about Van Buren you may ask? Well, Martin Van Buren was the last president to hold the traditionalist view of the veto, the view held by the presidents of the 18th and early 19th centuries.
What I mean by the traditionalist view is simply this: from George Washington up until Andrew Jackson presidents long had the view that the presidential veto was a constitutional power meant only to uphold the Constitution. In other words, it was their way of shutting down legislation that they believed to be unconstitutional.
Now in all technicality the Constitution doesn’t concretely lay out the justification a president can use for a veto. In fact, the words “presidential veto” don’t appear once in the United States Constitution, the clause the power comes from simply states:
“Every Order, Resolution, or Vote … shall be presented to the President of the United States; and before the Same shall take Effect, shall be approved by him, or being disapproved by him, shall be repassed by two thirds of the Senate and House of Representatives, according to the Rules and Limitations prescribed in the Case of a Bill.”
– United States Constitution, Article One, Section 6
There is no statement as to what constitutes a “valid” veto. However for decades most people viewed the veto as the presidential last resort to unconstitutional legislation (at least until the Supreme Court sets things straight)
That is until Andrew Jackson revolutionized how we see the presidential veto in 1832.
You see, one of the biggest debates in American politics in the 19th century was whether the United States should have a national bank. It was essentially the Healthcare debate of its time.
Critics of the establishment of a United States National Bank cried that it was unconstitutional, until the Supreme Court ultimately ruled that Congress was constitutionally allowed to establish a national bank under the Necessary and Proper Clause in McCulloch v. Maryland in 1819.
However did that close off debate? To answer that question, let me ask another, did critics of Obamacare quiet down after the Supreme Court ruled that the individual mandate was constitutional?
And Andrew Jackson was the leader of these critics of the National Bank, and it is one of the biggest issues that he ran on when he ran for the presidency in 1828.
So when the Charter for the 2nd Bank of the United States came up from renewal in 1832 and Congress renewed it, Jackson found his chance to shut it down.
On July 10th, 1832 Andrew Jackson issued his veto to the renewal of the Charter of the 2nd Bank of the United States.
He made no claims of vetoing it on constitutional grounds, after all, the SCOTUS had already ruled the bank constitutional over a decade earlier, he made it very clear it was on political grounds.
This veto was revolutionary in how it shaped American politics, the power of the presidency, and the view of the veto. In essence, Andrew Jackson inaugurated the modern veto.
So what does all this have to do with Martin Van Buren and Obama’s “two vetoes”?
Martin Van Buren was Andrew Jackson’s successor. That’s why.
And unlike Jackson, Van Buren subscribed to to the traditionalist view of the presidential veto, perhaps the last of the presidents to do so.
This is where you might expect me to come out with “Until Obama”, but that’s not true. The NPR article I keep mentioning lists several reasons for why President Obama has used the veto so little. I’m also not going to pass judgement on whether the Obama administration’s non obstructionist attitude is a good or bad thing.
I will however say this: when NPR highlights President Obama’s use of less vetoes than any president since Martin Van Buren, they’re actually highlighting that President Obama has used the veto less times than any president in the history of the modern presidential veto other than Van Buren.
That’s why “two vetoes” is significant.