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Explained: Why Kamala Harris is 49th V-P but Joe Biden is 46th POTUS

Joe Biden is the 46th President of the United States, while Kamala Harris is the 49 Vice President. Why is there a difference in the numbers?

Written by Om Marathe , Edited by Explained Desk | New Delhi |
Updated: January 27, 2021 8:49:57 am
President-elect Joe Biden, left, fist bumps Vice President Kamala Harris after she was sworn in during the inauguration, Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2021, at the U.S. Capitol in Washington. (AP/PTI Photo)

Kamala Harris made history on Wednesday by becoming the first woman, African-American and South Asian Vice President of the United States.

Harris is now the 49th to enter the nation’s second-highest office, even though Joe Biden, the new President, is the 46th chief executive. The Biden-Harris administration is also considered the 46th elected government since the first administration was led by President George Washington and Vice President John Adams from 1789 to 1797.

Why is Kamala Harris the 49th US Vice President, but Biden the 46th President?

Put simply, this is because there have been more vice presidents of the United States than presidents.

For over 150 years since the founding of the US, the numbers of presidents and vice presidents were the same. The change occurred during the 32nd Administration of the US, which began in 1933, when Democratic President Franklin Delano Roosevelt took charge as the 32nd Commander-in-Chief, and John Nance Garner, a former Speaker of the US House of Representatives, became his Vice President — and the nation’s 32nd second-in-command.

Roosevelt, commonly known by his initials FDR, was the longest occupant of the White House, serving 12 years — he won four general elections during this period and lead the country during most of World War II.

In that era, most vice presidents were largely ceremonial, and did not have any major influence on the president’s policies. However, after the FDR-Garner pair was elected a second time in 1936, major disagreements erupted between the two over a range of important issues, such as FDR’s New Deal policies and push to “pack” the US Supreme Court.

So, in the 1940 Democratic primaries, Garner broke with FDR, and sought to become the party’s nominee for president. FDR, though, was able to defeat Garner easily, and chose his progressive Secretary of Agriculture Henry Wallace as his running mate for the 1940 elections.

After the Democrats again won in 1940, Wallace became the 33rd Vice President, serving under FDR, still the 32nd President. As second-in-command, Wallace is remembered as the country’s first “modern” Vice President, who took on key responsibilities in the FDR administration. However, a combination of factors, including Wallace’s open criticism of racial segregation, religious views and pro-USSR statements led him to be dropped at the Democratic National Convention of 1944, where he was replaced by Harry Truman as FDR’s running mate.

After FDR won a record fourth time in 1944, Truman became the 34th Vice President, increasing the difference in numbers of the top posts to two.

Then, in 1945, Truman succeeded FDR as president upon the latter’s death, and became the 33rd US President. As this transition took place, Truman’s second-in-command, Alben Barkley, became the 36th Vice President, further increasing the difference to three.

As Biden and Harris were inaugurated 76 years later, this difference between the numbers of presidents and vice presidents remained the same.

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