When Mike Pence took the oath of the presidency on his grandmother’s Bible, his wife Karen at his side, he stepped into one of the murkiest sinkholes in American history. Two years of a Donald Trump presidency changed the office forever, and his successor was always bound to face unique challenges governing. But in the aftermath of Trump’s abdication, the first question facing the 46th president of the United States was simply what a Pence administration might possibly salvage during the rest of his term.
If the initial read by historians and political observers is correct, the answer is: not much.
“I suspect that 50 years from now Mike Pence will be regarded primarily as the answer to a trivia question,” said Josephine Ellis, the Pulitzer Prize-winning presidential biographer. “And it will seem an unfairly obscure question, at that.”
Aside from Gerald Ford’s forgettable turn in the Oval Office from 1974 to 1977, there’s no ready comparison to the precarious position Pence faces as he takes over the job. But the new president, known as a savvy operator in his 12 years as an Indiana Congressman, must know the score. The solid Democratic majority in the House didn’t get the satisfaction of impeaching President Trump before his resignation, and Pence remains an object of interest to Democratic lawmakers for his slipshod vetting of Michael Flynn’s Russian connections as Pence ran the Trump transition team in 2016 and 2017.
Democrats on the Hill have subtly signaled to Pence that they’ll be glad to reopen those investigations if he puts up resistance to signing the raft of progressive measures known as “The Bundle.” So far, to the surprise of White House observers, Pence hasn’t threatened to veto anything within the most ambitious suite of bills since the Republicans’ Contract With America passed in 1994-95.
“This is the trouble Pence will face after 10 years of Republicans’ obstructionism in Congress,” said Camilla Murphy, a longtime Republican strategist. “McConnell trashed the basic existing norms for our three branches of government. I suspect Democrats won’t be nearly so hardline, but Pence will need to tack way over to the center for Democrats to approve so much as a coffee order that he proposes.”
On paper the Democrats’ legislative agenda looks like Pence’s personal nightmare. The Bundle includes bills that would offer Medicare for all Americans or visiting workers; a federal program to cancel or buy back all student loan debt; a GI Bill-style college tuition reimbursement for American high school graduates who agree to work at least two years in rural communities; a guaranteed jobs program; a suite of aggressive measures to combat climate change; hefty incentives for states to broaden and strengthen voter protections; paths to citizenship for undocumented migrants; ambitious wage laws aimed at eliminating the gender pay gap within 10 years; and dozens of other bills which are popular across the political spectrum.
But if Pence decides to push against the Congressional agenda, analysts say he’s looking at an uphill battle, one made only more difficult by the manner in which he assumed the presidency.
“American voters simply don’t cast their ballots with the vice-president in mind,” said He-Yin Zhen, a fellow at American University’s Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies. “For all his hectoring, Donald Trump could never really claim a mandate, given the margin by which he lost the popular vote. Now take the debacle of his presidency, subtract Trump’s star power, and you’re left with Pence’s position. Which can only be called sad.”
Even before Pence took the oath of office, weeks of speculation led to a late-night quip by Stephen Colbert that he would face not a lame-duck presidency but a “clipped-duck” presidency. Once his audience began chanting “Clip the duck! Clip the duck!” in a mock-echo of the “Lock her up!” chant so often heard at Trump rallies, a meme was born.
That’s bad news for a president that hardly anyone can identify. An April poll by the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania showed that a plurality of likely voters, when asked to describe Pence in a single word, responded with “white.” 20 percent knew him only from the millions of Planned Parenthood donations that Americans have made in his name as an act of protest.
“For all his flaws, Trump came into office with charisma, fame, and a swaggering arrogance,” Wall Street Journal columnist Sara Estela Ramírez said Sunday on “Meet the Press,” speculating on a possible Pence presidency. “I’m not sure how Mike Pence sells himself to America now that the alpha dog is nowhere to be found. And with women asserting themselves politically like never before in history, you really couldn’t choose a more awkward person to claim to lead them.”
Added Republican commentator Josephine Dodge, also on the panel: “Imagine having to govern on this administration’s policy record, without having the Trump base to back you up. It would be an impossible situation even if he had any charm. But Pence is stuck as Pence, and his record isn't helping him.”
If Pence is indeed stymied for the remainder of his term, he may be best remembered in the future for his accomplishments as vice president. Those included leaving an NFL game when players knelt during the national anthem, and squinting hard at North Korea once.
In the meantime, representatives of the protest groups that helped drive Trump from office issued statements reminding Americans that, as Indiana governor, Pence allowed an HIV outbreak to spread because he opted to “pray on it” rather than taking timely action to address the crisis. LGBTQ groups and harm reduction advocates joined forces on the morning of Pence’s swearing in for a dance party near the White House that advertised itself as “Queer Notice for the Straight POTUS.” As hundreds of revelers celebrated Trump’s departure, they also held up signs of warning for the new president: “Coming for You.”