Joe Biden could become the oldest president to seek a second term. Does his age really matter?
In 1980, journalist Jeff Greenfield predicted on television that Joe Biden might one day challenge Ronald Reagan if the Republican president-elect sought a second term.
Walter Cronkite disagreed, and when the 1984 election rolled around, Biden wasn’t on the ticket. Voters voted to re-elect Reagan, then 73 and already the oldest American president in office.
Two failed presidential bids would later come and go for Biden. But it wasn’t until 2020 that he was elected president, just before his 78th birthday.
“We’ve never had a president in office past 80,” Greenfield said.
Until Biden, who turned 80 last November and is now the country’s oldest president himself. He is expected to reveal soon whether he is seeking a second term.
A second Biden victory would place the US president on a relatively short list of leaders of democratic nations whose rise – or return to power – came so late in life.
But experts say Biden shouldn’t be written off just because he’s older than some voters would like.
“The claim that Biden is somehow unfit [because of his age] just doesn’t get up,” said Rodney Loeppky, associate professor in the Department of Politics at York University in Toronto.
“He has to deal with a lot of cultural and political prejudices, and then he is also vulnerable to political attacks. But if you ask me objectively, you know, is he too old for the post? There’s just no reason to say that.”
Not just Biden
Biden is the oldest of the leaders of the G7 nations, although there are currently democracies led by political veterans of similar age and experience.
Last fall, Brazilian voters brought Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva to power at the age of 77, two decades after he first held the same job.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in his sixth term as head of state, turns 74 this fall, while India’s Narendra Modi – in the midst of a second term as prime minister – turns 73.
Other countries have to flip through the pages of history longer to find comparable examples.
In Canada, the youngest prime minister was of a similar age to Biden Louis St-Laurent, who was 75 when the Liberals lost the 1957 general election. But that was at the end of his tenure, not at the beginning.
In Britain, only a handful of prime ministers led government by the age of octogenarians.
The youngest was Winston Churchill when he returned to power in post-war Britain in 1951. He was 80 years old when he left office in 1955. The Conservative Prime Minister was then the oldest to lead his country in decades and the oldest since.
In contrast, Rishi Sunak, the 42-year-old current Prime Minister, is the youngest British leader in 200 years.
However, the job can be tough for world leaders of all ages and affect their health even after they have left office.
Anupam Jena, a physician and professor of health policy at Harvard Medical School, looked at this issue in a 2015 observational study that compared the lifespans of hundreds of world leaders to those who competed against them but didn’t win the work.
The study found that “government leaders had significantly accelerated mortality compared to second-place candidates.”
And while Biden may be as old as 80, Jena said the US president appears to be in good health — and his health can differ significantly from the average person of the same age.
“This is an energetic man who is very active,” Jena said, noting that as president, Biden has access to a level of healthcare that few others have.
More generally, said Alison Chasteen, a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, “there’s a lot of variability with aging” and someone shouldn’t be barred from doing a particular job just because they’re an older person.
“We know that chronological age alone is not a good indicator of a person’s ability later in life,” said Chasteen, an expert on age stereotypes and age discrimination.
A recurring question
The issue of Biden’s age has been raised by political opponents throughout his presidency – even after his recent State of the Union speech.
Political observers predict Biden’s age will continue to be referenced should he advance his plans to run again.
Lindsay Chervinsky, a presidential historian, told The Associated Press that Biden’s age is “the X factor” that sets him apart from his predecessors.
“If he were 10 years younger, none of these conversations would happen,” she said.
But Greenfield said the US may be increasingly accepting of seeing older people in such roles in the White House, noting that in the last election two men in their 70s – Biden and his predecessor Donald Trump – were vying for the job.
“What’s in Biden’s favor is that the country has aged,” Greenfield said, referring to its aging population.
Chasteen of the University of Toronto said negative stereotypes about what older people are capable of have long existed in many societies.
Seeing Biden in the role he plays might help dispel such stereotypes, but Chasteen said the way the media reports on his presidency can affect that — say, as a stumble a few years ago of the President was caught on camera on an airplane staircase.
“It got a lot of media attention,” Chasteen said, noting that it’s harder to convey that a person is “doing their job competently and aging very well overall when such ‘faults or errors’ are explicitly associated with aging.” become .”
An expected line of attack
York University’s Loepkky said Americans invest a lot in the person who leads their country — and that leads to scrutiny of a candidate’s personality and suitability for the job.
“There’s this personalized element in the presidency and there’s age in that,” said Loeppky, currently the Canadian Fulbright Research Chair in Race and Health Policy at the University of Memphis.
But he said it’s also a theme some Republican opponents use on a tactical basis in a caustic political climate.
“Age is a way of dehumanizing Biden and making him seem smaller in the face of office,” Loeppky said.
Paul Quirk, a professor of political science at the University of British Columbia, said Biden brings “tremendous amounts of experience” to his day-to-day work at the White House, dating back to his days as a senator and vice president.
With that in mind, he predicts that if Biden seeks a second term, “there will be negative mentions of his age from time to time, but I don’t think it will be a determining factor in the election.”
Quirk, a US politics specialist, also noted that the style in which a president works can vary widely and be tailored to the preferences of the leader — as evidenced by the varied styles exhibited by former occupants of the Oval Office have.
“If a president slows down and can’t work as long, that doesn’t matter,” Quirk said, noting that a White House leader has a number of staff to whom he can delegate duties as needed.