What Joe Biden's age - and our reactions to it - tells us about presidential 'fitness'

by Adam Felts

Last month, the New York Times published results from a poll reporting that most Americans – and a majority of Democrats – do not want President Joe Biden to run for re-election. While Biden’s low poll numbers, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, and the country’s economic challenges help to explain these findings, perhaps the key factor, especially among those who tend to vote Democratic, is Biden’s age.

“In saying they wanted a different nominee in 2024, Democrats cited a variety of reasons, with the most in an open-ended question citing his age (33 percent), followed closely by unhappiness with how he is doing the job,” the Times story reports. Biden will be 81 years old at the end of his first term in 2024; were he to win re-election, he would be 86 at the close of his presidency.

I can find two reasons behind the discomfort with Biden’s age. One comes from is the idea that older politicians are not able to bring new ideas to tackle modern challenges—progressive Democrats, in particular, express concerns that Biden represents a bygone era of politics. The other is that Biden’s fitness for the presidency is liable to decrease as he ages.

Both of these anxieties are interesting, although the latter right now is more striking to me. How do we understand the relationship between age and ‘fitness?’ What exactly do we mean—or have in mind—when we speak about presidential fitness?

Much of the discourse related to Biden’s age is plainly ageist—like the not-so-whisper campaign suggesting that he is suffering from dementia. Putting such slander aside, though, it is legitimate to have concerns, or at least wonders, about what age we want our leaders to be. On one side of the spectrum, the U.S. Constitution prohibits anyone under the age of 35 from running for the presidency, and in the absence of such a law, it seems unlikely that voters would ever elect a 20-something in any case.

On the other side, there are some good reasons we might be hesitant to elect an octogenarian to the nation’s highest office. The risk of health emergencies and the development of chronic conditions, including dementia, rise precipitously in one’s 80s. Energy levels decline; cognitive abilities change in gradual ways, in some aspects perhaps for better, such as in wisdom and perspective, in others for worse.

How people think about the ‘right’ age for the presidency has much to do with how we think about the office itself. The president is the commander of the armed forces, the nation’s chief orator, and perhaps its most visible public figure. Since its founding, America has been tempted to see the presidency more as a royal office than as a public one. For these reasons, among others, there has often been a premium placed by American voters on charisma and vitality in presidential candidates.

Teddy Roosevelt, the first person to assume the presidency in the 20th century, was known for his exuberant personality and penchant for physically strenuous activity. John F. Kennedy used his handsome appearance to his advantage in the first-ever televised presidential debates, and today, his post-presidential popularity likely has at least something to do with how good he looked in Ray-Bans.

In the absence of a young physique, a youthful wit (and a telegenic air) may also be sufficient for a presidential candidate. Ronald Reagan, a former movie and TV star who ran for his second term against Democratic nominee Walter Mondale at a then-record age of 74, famously dispelled questions about his advanced age with the clever quip that he “would not exploit, for political purposes, [his] opponent’s youth and inexperience.”

Joe Biden’s most likely opponent in the 2024 election, Donald J. Trump, is only one year younger than he is, yet Trump’s age has been far less of an issue in his political career than it has been lately for Biden. Trump, whether strategically or instinctively, appears to go to great lengths to appear young, with his famous orangey hue, his elaborate combover, and, until recently, his feathery blonde hair. In 2015, he released a strange medical report claiming that he was “the healthiest individual ever elected to the Presidency.” He often remarks, apropos of nothing, upon his boundless energy and his need for only a few hours of sleep per night.

These quirks have been analyzed as signs of a fragile and defensive ego, but it also might be that Trump instinctively understands a brute fact of public life: Once people see you as ‘old,’ you are damaged. And being ‘old’ does not have so much to do with your age, or even your capacities, as it does with how you appear.

President Biden, relatively speaking, has paid less attention to projecting youthful vigor as part of his public image—although he once challenged a man to a pushup contest on the campaign trail, and Donald Trump himself to a fistfight. His hair is very, very white. He shuffles when he walks. His voice is gravelly and thin, unlike Trump’s blustering, nasally tone. And he is long-famous for his tendency to flub lines in speeches and to forget or mix up words, which is partly due to his lifelong management of a stutter.

Trump also has a penchant for misspeaking and for saying simply bizarre things, but he has found a way to turn these missteps into forms of mischievousness and bravado instead of suspected signs of cognitive disorder—feats of reality distortion that may shed light on why Kanye West has claimed that Trump possesses “dragon energy.”

The U.S. president functions both as the head of government and head of state, so the right appearance is, in fact, part of the job description. But on the other side of the office, of actually performing the executive role of the federal government, most of us have very little idea about what the president actually does on a daily basis. We have no choice, as voters, but to evaluate our candidates on their ability to do a job that is difficult for us to imagine. Given such a difficult task, we are liable to use whatever information we have available to us, including age, in making our judgments.

Apparent age is a sometimes-useful heuristic for evaluating fitness—depending on what fitness happens to mean. It is a strong predictor of one's ability to play professional football, for example (with one notable exception). But it may not be so useful when it comes to more complex cases. Age might be a useful predictive factor for whether a person can do a somersault; it may be less helpful for evaluating one’s capacity to serve in a position of leadership. Perhaps we can find better criteria than this one.

It is not a strictly modern behavior to be preoccupied with the age of our leaders. In James Frazier’s The Golden Bough, he observes a practice of societies deposing and executing their leaders at the first sign of gray hair or wrinkles, or, more generally, at “the appearance on their person of any sign of bodily defect or sign of decay.” Frazier considered this a superstitious practice rather than a prudential one. To avoid such a brutal fate, according to one of Frazier’s sources, one 19th century Zulu leader secured a supply of “hair oil” to hide his whitening hairs from his subjects, thus prolonging his apparent youth—and his life.

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About the Author

Photo of Adam Felts
Adam Felts

Adam Felts is a researcher and writer at the MIT AgeLab. Currently he is involved in research on the experiences of family caregivers and the future of financial advice. He also manages the AgeLab blog and newsletter. He received his Master's in Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Boston University in 2014 and his Master's of Theological Studies from Boston University in 2019.

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