Joe Biden is old. He has, in fact, been old for quite some time. It is time we learned how to deal with it honestly.
If reelected, Biden will be 82 on Inauguration Day 2025. He will be 86 when he leaves office four years later. He is already the oldest man ever to serve as president.
But what does that really mean? How do we put that in perspective? How should voters assess that fact in a rational way that leads them to make the right decision at the polls?
On the one hand—let’s be honest—Biden is not going to be Hollywood’s idea of a president. For example, he will probably not be able to single-handedly defeat terrorists if they take over Air Force One, as Harrison Ford did back in the movie named after the presidential aircraft, or as Jamie Foxx did in “White House Down.” He will not look as good as Barack Obama did in a bathing suit (according to my wife). He will not be able to cheat at golf as often as Donald Trump did.
There are limitations that fall on each of us as we age. The question before the American electorate—and Biden himself has said that voters need to weigh this issue for themselves—is will these limitations negatively affect his ability to be president? Also relevant is the question of whether Biden, at his age, is better or worse equipped to be president than whomever his opponent might be.
Objectively, Joe Biden was not negatively impacted by his age during his term of office thus far. In fact, purely in terms of legislative record, Biden has accomplished more in his first couple of years in office than any other president since Lyndon B. Johnson.
His handling of difficult foreign policy challenges puts him in the first tier of U.S. presidents on that front. Did he stumble over his words occasionally? Yes, but he used to do that when he was much younger. George W. Bush did it when he was president and he was 54 when he took office. All people do it.
The reality is, Joe Biden’s age has been an asset so far. His experience has enabled him to advance an ambitious domestic agenda and to revitalize the world’s most important alliance in ways many thought would be impossible.
Furthermore, if those concerned about Biden’s age were honest, they would acknowledge that from a health perspective, thus far Joe Biden is much fitter and showing far fewer limitations than many of his predecessors.
Donald Trump, nearly as old and obese, couldn’t walk down a ramp without assistance and had trouble drinking from a glass of water. A conversation with a friend who used to serve in the Obama White House indicated staffers close to him were concerned about the dangers associated with President Obama’s smoking. (Genetics matter too. Obama’s father was 48 when he died, his mother was 52 when she passed.)
Ronald Reagan was weakened by the assassination attempt on him and was, according to reports of his own cabinet members and to observations of medical professionals, in decline during his last years in office. Richard Nixon drank to excess at times and took narcotics to sleep, a bad combination. Lyndon Johnson, chain smoker, had his first heart attack when he was 47. It is thought he had five such cardiac incidents including the one that killed him, five years after he left office, at age 65.
John F. Kennedy, whose assassination proved that age and actuarial table are not always useful ways to predict the longevity of presidents, also concealed his own serious illnesses. As a PBS investigation into his health put it, “long before he died at age 46, Kennedy was a very sick man.” A sickly child, he was initially denied entry into the military because of back problems he struggled with his whole life. As a consequence of back surgeries while he was still in the Senate, he grew so weak, last rites had to be administered. Further, he suffered from Addison’s disease, a life-threatening illness, the treatment for which also had negative side effects.
Dwight Eisenhower, too, suffered from a variety of serious illnesses, his health made dramatically worse by a massive heart attack he suffered in 1955—the year before he ran for reelection. Voters were largely unfamiliar with the extent of
Franklin D. Roosevelt’s medical challenges, including his paralysis from polio, suffered when he was 39 years old. When he ran for reelection in 1944, they had no idea he was already a dying man.
Biden—unlike Roosevelt or Eisenhower or Kennedy or Trump—has not hidden his health from the public. He has regularly been pronounced fit throughout his term of office. Further, of course, there have been no hints that Biden’s medical team lied about his fitness as did Trump’s doctor, now Congressman Ronny Jackson.
Sen. Mitch McConnell and Biden are roughly the same age. Three other senators are older. The average age of members of the Senate is 67 years. When Sen. Robert Byrd died he was in his ninth term in office and was 92. If Biden is reelected and serves his full second term, he would still leave office younger than two current members of the Senate. Chuck Grassley, just reelected last year at age 89, will be 96 when his current term expires.
There is of course, reasonable debate, about how age impacts political leaders, as the current debate over Sen. Dianne Feinstein illustrates. But it is worth noting that Feinstein is currently older than Biden would be at the end of his term. Further, it is also true that being president is quite different from being a Senator.
While in many respects it is a more demanding job, the president is not alone in running the executive branch. Many presidents embrace their role as a kind of corporate CEO, delegating key assignments to their White team, the cabinet and others in the executive branch. The reason so many past presidents were able to manage while facing serious health challenges—none of which Biden shows any sign of—is because they rightly viewed themselves as part of a team and surrounded themselves with capable people.
Even if the years take a further modest toll on Biden, which they are likely to do, with the team he has around him, he should be well able to handle the job as it is, not as it is depicted in Hollywood or as we have mythologized it in the past. Indeed, given changes in modern medicine and healthcare, he is likely to be far more physically and mentally capable than many of his predecessors. (And just for the record, actuarial tables suggest that a man of Biden’s current age can expect to live 9.1 additional years…and that is not taking into account the resources available to a president or Biden’s excellent health. Also relevant on the genetics front: Biden’s mom lived to be 92.)
This brings us to one final key point about Biden’s age in which prudence obligates us to think about the unthinkable.
Should Biden become incapacitated or otherwise be unable to finish his term in office, he, like any candidate, should have a running mate who could assume the office. Vice President Kamala Harris certainly fills that bill. She has extensive government experience, experience as a manager running a large state agency, experience on Capitol Hill and she has worked tirelessly as vice president on a wide range of issues of critical importance.
“Even if the years take a further modest toll on Biden…he should be well able to handle the job as it is, not as it is depicted in Hollywood or as we have mythologized it in the past.”
She has traveled the world and met with world leaders on issues from Ukraine to China’s growing influence in Asia, from Africa to the Americas, and the response of those leaders to her has been great. On domestic issues, like a woman’s right to choose or America’s gun problem, she has been a leading and effective voice. She not only aided Biden in his election in 2020 but she has vital support across core Democratic Party constituencies. Tune out the buzz of Beltway know-it-alls and recognize that among America’s recent vice presidents she is among the best prepared and most capable.
Of course, none of the above would matter if Joe Biden did not deserve to be reelected. As noted above, his record is excellent. But he also possesses one vital attribute that makes him the very best choice for the Democrats: He has won before.
Biden has led the party in two elections in which the Trump-led GOP has suffered major setbacks. Polls show he is the Democrat most likely to beat Trump should he be, as seems likely right now, the GOP candidate.
That fact is not only important in terms of the sheer politics of it, though.
The man most likely to be the GOP candidate led a coup attempt against the U.S. He has talked of suspending the Constitution. He is a racist. He is a wannabe authoritarian. He was deeply corrupt. He was disloyal to the United States. He is facing wide-spread, well-deserved legal challenges. The man second most likely to be the GOP candidate, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, is also a wannabe autocrat who is equally contemptuous as Trump of democracy and the Constitution. The GOP is seeking to impose white male minority rule on the U.S. and to do whatever it takes to achieve that goal.
Of all the people in the United States, the one best equipped to stop them right now is Joe Biden. For that reason, he not only should run…he really must be the candidate. Indeed, if you care about the political voice of future generations, if you want them to even have a voice in a functioning democracy, it is essential that right now that the oldest president in U.S. history not only run now but that he wins reelection in 2024.