Biden, Trump “too old for the Presidency”. But are they?

The most common word to describe the US’ governing class is ‘gerontocracy’: ‘a government by the elderly’. How old is too old to serve?

Joe Biden, now 80 years old, is the first octogenarian to occupy the Oval Office as President of the USA, while his main rival in the November 2024 presidential election, former President Donald Trump, is 77. They are two of the three oldest men ever to serve as President of the USA. A Monmouth University poll in October 2023 showed that roughly three-quarters of American voters think Biden is too old for office, while nearly half of voters believe that Trump is too old to serve.

A look at the ages of the current crop of Senators and members in the House indicates that Biden and Trump are not the only ageing leaders in the US Senate, and one, therefore, gets the impression that the American voters could be inclined to go for older politicians. But are they? 

When I put the question to an American friend of mine who is well-versed in the subject in the US, he told me that it is not accurate to say that Americans universally favour old politicians, as preferences for political leaders can vary widely among individuals. However, a few factors, such as experience and wisdom, name recognition, perceived stability and generational divide, may contribute to the perception that more senior politicians are often favoured.

Biden and Trump in their younger years

The edge of older politicians

When it comes to experience and wisdom, older politicians are often perceived as having more knowledge and wisdom due to their longer careers in public service. Some voters believe that this experience is valuable in navigating complex political issues. Older politicians may have been in the public eye for a longer time, which can contribute to greater name recognition. Therefore, voters may feel more comfortable with familiar figures and trust individuals with long political track records.

Some voters may associate age with stability and reliability. Therefore, older candidates are less likely to make impulsive decisions and more likely to provide a sense of continuity.

Another important reason is the demographics of the American electorate, which can also play a role. Older voters may feel more comfortable with candidates closer to their age, and they may turn out in more significant numbers in elections. 

But in the history of the USA, since 30th April 1789, when George Washington took his oath of office as the first President of the United States, there are plenty of instances where younger politicians have been successful and were well-received by the American public. Public opinion is diverse and influenced by many factors, including policy positions, charisma, communication skills, and the ability to connect with voters.

The old and the older

Back to the present, Mary Kae Cary, Adjunct Professor of Politics and Director of Think Again, University of Virginia, points out that it was hard to avoid the fact that when former President Bill Clinton showed up at the White House in early 2023 to join President Joe Biden to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Family and Medical Leave Act, it had been three decades since Clinton was in office. Yet, at 77, he’s somehow three years younger than Biden. 

Photo: REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

In 1966, President George H.W. Bush chose not to rechallenge Bill Clinton in that year’s election. If he had run and won at the 1997 inauguration, he would have been 72. Instead, he is said to have enjoyed a tremendous second act filled with humanitarian causes, skydiving, and grandchildren.

Bush’s decision to retire at that age raises the question of why Biden and Trump, who are more than a decade and a half beyond the average American retirement age – which in the US is 66/67 – are stepping forward again for what is considered one of the world’s most demanding jobs. 

For 140 years, at 68, William Henry Harrison was the oldest person ever to be elected President. He took office in 1841. Then Ronald Reagan came along. In his first inauguration in 1981, he was 69. When he left office at age 77, he was the oldest person ever to have served as President. 

Trump left office when he was 74, making him the third-oldest to hold the office, behind Reagan and Biden.

A look inside the Senate and the House of Representatives

Biden and Trump aren’t the only ageing leaders in the US. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, a Democrat, is 72, and Mitch McConnell, the Republican Minority Leader, is 81. Then there is octogenarian Sen. Bernie Sanders, an Independent, who is 82 and does not seem to want to quit.

Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley has turned 90, with no plans to retire. He now holds the distinction of being the oldest sitting member of Congress. He was first elected to the Iowa House of Representatives in 1959, and served eight terms before being elected to the US House in 1975. He assumed his current role in the Senate in 1981 and is the longest-serving GOP senator in US history. In January 2023, he surpassed the late Orrin Hatch’s record; in the same month, he underwent surgery after injuring his hip.

Senator Chuck Grassley

At the time of her death at age 90, on 29th September, Senator Dianne Feinstein was the oldest member of Congress, but not by very much. Several lawmakers on both sides are well into their 80s or even older. Her death came more than seven months after she announced that she intended to retire at the end of her term in January 2025.

Senator Dianne Feinstein

After 25 years in the US Congress, Democrat Grace Napolitano, who turned 87 in December, is the oldest member of the House of Representatives. She assumed her office in 1999. She won’t seek reelection at the end of her current term, which ends in January 2025. In 2016, Napolitano suffered a minor hemorrhagic stroke during a campaign stop, which sidelined her for two months.

At age 83, Democrat and former Speaker Nancy Pelosi recently announced that she would be running for reelection for her 19th full term in office in the House next year. Two other Democrats, Bill Pascrell Jr. and Eleanor Holmes Norton, a nonvoting delegate, are both 86. Norton will be 87 in January. Republican Harold Rogers and Democrat Maxine Waters are both 85 and yet another Democrat, Steny Hoyer, is 84. None of them has indicated they’re retiring.

Maxine Waters is another 85-year-old Republican who has announced her candidacy, while Steny Hoyer, at age 84, does not rule himself out. James Clyburn, 83 (the assistant Democratic leader in the House), having served as majority whip between 2007-2011 and between 2019-2023, has also declared he will seek a 17th term in 2024.

A State governed by old people?

According to the Census Bureau, the average age in the House and Senate is 58 and 64, respectively, while according to a survey published last January, the median age of the current crop of senators is 65.3. In the House of Representatives, the median age is 57.9. The current House and Senate are the third-oldest since 1789. The most common word to describe the country’s governing class is ‘gerontocracy’, meaning ‘a government by the elderly’.

A total of 14 lawmakers aged 80 or older currently serve in Congress. Some, like Feinstein, who has since died, have suffered health scares, prompting debate about how old is too old to serve. A few years ago, a pharmacist on Capitol Hill made headlines when he reportedly revealed that he had been filling Alzheimer’s medication prescriptions for members of Congress. 

Most probably, Americans who delay retirement do it because they cannot afford to stop working. Still, most of these politicians, among them leaders, are millionaires. If they retire, they can enjoy government pensions and healthcare benefits. Therefore, they are not doing it for financial reasons. Their reason could be denial because, like many people, they don’t like being reminded of their mortality, and want continue feeling that they are indispensable and have power. 

Occasionally, there have been calls in the US to impose age limits for federal elected office. There have also been calls, supported by the vast majority of Americans, for compulsory mental competency tests for elected leaders who are 75 and older. That way, one would know who was sharp and who was not. People tend to favour getting back to electing people in their 50s and early 60s, but it seems the legislators themselves are not in favour.

Main image: Illustration: 731; photos: Getty Images

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Dr Anthony DeGiovanni
Dr Anthony DeGiovanni
5 months ago

I must thank the author for illustrating so well an Ageist approach to politics. We have seen recently a similar approach by the conservative lobby concerning young people assuming the role of mayor in Malta. Opposition cannot be simply based on stereotyping and assumptions taken as given. It would have been interesting to read whether the author thinks it is the caucus system that produces older candidates and whether he thinks the voter is sovereign. A good example of an Ageist assumption is suggesting mental testing for the over 75. As if the world did not produce horrendous politicians of a much younger age!

Last edited 5 months ago by Dr Anthony DeGiovanni