Joe Biden is expected, likely within the week, to issue the first veto of his presidency more than two years into the start of his administration. His target is the so-called ESG bill, a resolution passed by Congress and overturning a Labor Department rule that allowed asset managers to prioritize environmental, social, and corporate governance factors over the strict financial results in retiree accounts when making investments. Former Deputy Secretary of Labor Pat Pizzella, who worked on this issue in the Trump administration, said ESG investing is "the icing on the cake of woke capitalism."
It is not surprising that Biden's first veto is a salvo in the culture wars. The woke agenda percolates throughout his administration but also in our current period of business and politics. In fact, looking back at history reveals that many presidents' first vetoes have provided a window into both each administration's focus and congressional relations strategies.
George Washington, our first president, was, unsurprisingly, the first president to issue a veto. Washington was keenly aware that all of his actions established precedents and was therefore quite thoughtful about how he carried out the president's responsibilities. His first veto occurred on April 5, 1792, when he nullified a plan that would have provided the northern states more representation relative to the southern states. Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson persuaded Washington that the bill was unconstitutional, and the veto reflected the careful north-south balance that dominated American political discourse for the first several decades of our nation's history.
Jefferson's long-standing opponent, Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton, was a staunch defender of the power. In Federalist 73, he explained the reason behind the veto: "The primary inducement to conferring this power in question upon the executive is to enable him to defend himself; the second one is to increase the chances in favor of the community against the passing of bad laws, through haste, inadvertence, or design."
Despite his two pro-veto Cabinet members, Washington would only issue one more veto, and his immediate successors Jefferson and John Adams did not issue any. Adams's son John Quincy Adams did not issue any vetoes either, meaning that the Adams family is the only presidential family — the other multi-president families being the Bushes and the Harrisons — to have zero vetoes. The Harrisons had 44, all by Benjamin, none by short-termer William Henry, and the Bushes had 56, 44 by George H.W., and 12 by his son George W. Seven presidents had zero vetoes, all predating the 20th century, and mostly in the early years of the republic.
Despite its slow start, the veto picked up steam in Andrew Jackson's presidency, as he issued 12 vetoes, more than all of his predecessors combined. None were overridden.
Franklin Roosevelt had the most vetoes, at 635. Grover Cleveland is the only one who comes close, with 584, and presidential vetoes have been in the double digits for every president since John F. Kennedy.
Because FDR served the longest as president, his having the most is understandable, but the overall number is unusually high, especially given that Democrats had control of both congressional houses throughout his tenure. The number reflects Roosevelt's activist view of the presidency, especially vis-a-vis Congress. Roosevelt would even tell his aides to "give me something to veto" so that he could more forcefully assert his role in the legislative process. Roosevelt's first regular veto, in response to a bill on the relatively unknown "Claims of the Turtle Mountain Band or Bands of Chippewa Indians of North Dakota," reflects his interest in getting intricately involved in the legislative process.
In our era, vetoes have often been indicators of a weak, rather than a strong, presidency. Gerald Ford took office after Richard Nixon's resignation, having been appointed, rather than elected, to the vice presidency. He issued 66 vetoes and was overridden 12 times. Ford issued his first veto just three days after becoming president, on a bill reclassifying the positions of deputy U.S. marshals. As one of 13 issued within his first three months, this veto was reflective of the degree to which he was embattled throughout his presidency. Still, Ford used the veto to play a weak hand as best he could, trying to limit the impact of the assertive "Watergate babies" Congress elected in 1974 after the Nixon resignation.
Despite a Democratic House and Senate throughout his single term in office, Ford's successor, Jimmy Carter, vetoed 31 bills as president. In November 1977, his first veto pertained to a bill that would have paid for a nuclear reactor he considered costly and unsafe. This first veto signaled Carter would spend much of his presidency at odds with a Democratic Congress, as well as the degree to which energy issues dominated his presidency.
Ronald Reagan did not mind a good veto. He issued 78 over his two terms, and while all were under a Democratic House, only nine were overridden. Reagan's first veto, on Nov. 23, 1981, was in response to a continuing appropriations bill that planned to spend well beyond the administration's recommendation. This veto reflected the degree to which Reagan would challenge Congress on tax and spending policy. He could be theatrical about it. In 1986, when Congress threatened to send a tax increase his way, Reagan warned, "My veto pen is inked up and ready to go."
Vetoes were a key element of George H.W. Bush's legislative strategy. Both the House and Senate were in Democratic hands throughout his presidency, and Bush used the veto to try and force legislative compromises with Congress. His first veto was less than five months into his presidency, over a disagreement with Congress on labor standards. The House sustained Bush's veto — the beginning of Bush's remarkable veto success, which consisted of being able to maintain 43 of his 44 vetoes. It wasn't until 1992, his last year in office, that he had a veto overridden. One could argue that this was an indicator of the political weakness that would lead to his electoral defeat one month later. Interestingly, according to presidential historian John Robert Greene, Bush absorbed the veto strategy from his time in the Ford administration, in which he served as the head of the U.S. Liaison Office in China and the director of central intelligence.
Bill Clinton was elected in 1992, but he did not issue a veto until June 7, 1995, over a Republican attempt to cut spending that had already been appropriated. This veto foreshadowed not only repeated battles over spending but also the question of Clinton's continued "relevance," which led to a compromise in the form of the Balanced Budget Act of 1997, perhaps the last serious bipartisan attempt to bring our budget into balance.
George W. Bush had a Republican House and Republican Senate for most of his first six years in office. As such, he only issued one veto in that period, on a bill loosening stem cell funding restrictions. This issue was an important symbolic issue in the early 2000s, when Bush sought a carefully crafted compromise that recognized concerns related to both life and life-saving research. He even offered his first major presidential address on this topic, in August 2001. On this effort, Bush received a lot of cultural and political pushback — including from Republicans such as John McCain. While the House sustained this veto, the fact that it occurred was a sign of political weakness. Democrats would take over the House in elections that November, and Bush would have to issue 11 more vetoes after that point, of which four were overridden, revealing the extent to which Bush was on his back heels for his final two years in office.
While Barack Obama started his presidency with a strong Democratic majority, he still had to issue two vetoes in his first term. The first was in regard to a minor disagreement on the relevance of a continuing spending resolution. The irrelevance of that veto reflected the degree to which Obama largely had strong cooperation with the Democratic-controlled Congress in his first two years in office. However, by the second half of his second term, the Republicans had won both Houses of Congress, and Obama issued 10 more vetoes in his last two years.
Like Obama, Donald Trump started his presidency with Republican control of both Houses of Congress and subsequently issued no vetoes in his first two years in office. However, Democrats reclaimed the House in 2018, and Trump issued 10 vetoes in the second two years of his single term. The first one was telling, as it was in relation to an issue of personal significance to Trump: the declaration of a national emergency that would enable him to build the border wall with Mexico. In response, Congress passed a resolution objecting to the declaration of a national emergency for that purpose. This was a fraught issue because it combined Trump's love for the border with objections by some Republicans to his methods, leading to the Democratic House and Republican Senate agreeing on the resolution rebuking Trump.
The veto is a powerful tool, one of the most potent in the presidential toolbox. It is exceedingly hard to override, and therefore it is usually, but not always, the last word on the subject. Vetoes alienate Congress — Greene said Bush's interplay with Democrats on the veto strategy created "a chain of legislative acrimony." This is something that Biden, as a long-standing former senator, is clearly aware of and may be part of his decision not to veto another bill disliked by Democrats: reducing penalties for crimes like carjacking in Washington. Vetoes also lose efficacy once overridden, revealing presidential weakness. The absences of Sen. John Fetterman (D-PA) and retiring Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) also complicate Biden's calculus on this issue because he does not have a reliable Democratic majority in the Senate.
Vetoing is a tool that enables weak presidents to try to set the terms of the legislative debate, but it is not costless to deploy. Ultimately, the veto is a negative weapon, preventing something from getting done rather than accomplishing something on its own. Wise leaders will use this tool to try and bring about accommodation rather than just a rejection of what the other side wants.