Biden Is Out—And Discussion about Aging Is on the Loose in Politics

Biden Is Out—And the Discussion of Aging in Politics Is In

The current presidential race has ensured that age will be a key and likely fraught consideration in future elections. Can science help determine how old is too old for a candidate before politics does?

Donald Trump and Joe Biden at the first presidential debate in 2020.

Saul Loeb and Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images

After last month’s presidential debate between President Joe Biden and former president Donald Trump, political officials and media pundits across the political spectrum lambasted the current president’s performance, as well as his subsequent mea culpa. In the proceeding weeks, close allies of Biden and high-profile Democrats publicly and privately hedged their bets on his electoral viability. With a critical line of Democratic detractors finally crossed, the president called it quits as a candidate last weekend.

At first glance, Biden’s all-but-forced exit is a clear referendum on aging candidates. But it’s an even more intimate and intuitive referendum on how humans age—and on our very mortality.

Over the past century Americans have debated whether a Catholic, a Southerner, a woman or a Black candidate could gain the White House. This presidential election cycle, voters have had to seriously weigh another demographic trait that affects all of us—age—and the way it factors into the question of electability. In a recent poll of U.S. adults, nearly half of respondents said they feared aging. Of those with aging-related fears, 63 percent said that declining health was one of the things that they feared most.

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As someone who researches aging, I believe the connection between our fears of worsening health and our feelings on political viability is clear: we do quite a bit of projecting on aging candidates because we begrudgingly see ourselves as one day being in their shoes. Until now, identity politics in the U.S. has generally been about race, religion, ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation. But age has imprinted itself as an X factor. Biden is the first, but not the last, victim of this new aspect of identity politics that is remaking discussions around electability in ways that will reverberate well past 2024.

Neurological studies have failed to pinpoint when, precisely, age-related cognitive decline occurs, but we know fairly definitively that dimensions of the decline between as early as one’s 20s, with the steepest declines beginning as one approaches their late 70s. In a New York Times/Siena College poll conducted shortly after the June debate, 74 percent of registered voters said that they agreed that Joe Biden, who is age 81, was “too old” to be an effective president. In contrast, only 42 percent of registered voters felt that Donald Trump, age 78, was. For those doing the math, that’s a three-year age gap.

What exactly does it mean to be “too old” or to be “effective” despite one’s older age? In the case of President Biden, onlookers frequently lasered in on his sluggish movement and his muffled, staccato speech and meandering comments, which, according to a recent report from the New York Times, White House insiders believed had been sharply increasing. Trump, for his part, has had moments of incoherence and “senioritis,” including dozing off during several public events, most recently during this year’s Republican National Convention. Although these types of behaviors aren’t exclusively tied to one’s age—many people in the presidential candidates’ age range have no comparably stark issues—they still have a way of vividly highlighting one’s mortality. These observations of cognitive decline, an increasingly arbitrary expression that has become a catchall for forgetfulness and the dispensing of word salads, had blotted out most claims of effectiveness from Biden in particular—regardless of his and his allies’ insistence that he has excelled despite these challenges. And it didn’t help that Biden has been dismissive about obtaining independent cognitive evaluations.

Then president Franklin D. Roosevelt, who guided the U.S. through World War II, died of a stroke at age 63 in 1945, when a man who lived to 65 could expect to live another dozen years. Roosevelt died in office less than a month before Nazi Germany surrendered. In his last year, he had suffered acute effects from a polio infection that he’d contracted decades before, becoming observably reliant on a wheelchair in public. During his final term, Roosevelt, the first to seek out and be granted third and fourth presidential terms, suppressed information about the extent of his condition despite his declining health. He feared it would make him look weak not just to the Axis powers but also in the eyes of allies and the American public. The nation’s legacy of paranoia and shame around discussing and dealing with aging and disability is deeply embedded to this day.

In a 2019 University of Michigan study of adults between 50 and 80 years old, 82 percent indicated that they regularly experienced one or more forms of ageism, including workplace discrimination and exposure to depictions of older adults as unattractive, feeble or undesirable. People who experienced everyday ageism also tended to have poorer physical and mental health relative to those who didn’t have these experiences. In this election, politics-related ageism—and ableism—have been more frequent and more accepted. A recent Economist cover with the headline “No Way to Run a Country” ignited a social media firestorm for its accompanying image of a solitary walker decorated with the presidential seal. The issue contained an article that was one of several recent high-profile media pieces aimed to dissuade Biden from running. Biden’s departure, which sees him effectively caving to these tropes, will likely sharpen attitudes about age and ability-related thresholds for holding political office.

Historically, older age has been an asset for presidential campaigns. Older age tends to draw a reflexive association with a candidate’s experience and wisdom. Not until former president Ronald Reagan’s reelection bid did the candidate’s older age become roundly weaponized. Reagan entered his second term in 1985, just weeks before his 74th birthday. Leading up to the second term, many of Reagan’s contemporaries had privately questioned the then president’s mental acuity. In later years, some people, including his son, even claimed Reagan had Alzheimer’s disease while in office. (Reagan’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis wasn’t officially announced until 1994.)

This reflected a turning point. The American electorate more thoughtfully began considering candidates’ age as the millennium approached. Bob Dole, who was 73 years old when he was chosen as the Republican presidential candidate in 1996, responded to people who criticized him for running for election in his twilight years by saying, “It’s not the age of the man. It’s the man for the age.” The American electorate didn’t necessarily agree and instead reelected the relatively sprightly Democratic nominee, then 50-year-old Bill Clinton. Dole didn’t seek public office again after the failed bid. He then largely faded from the national spotlight, save a seemingly age-appropriate guest spot in a Viagra ad two years later, in 1998.

Ageism in politics has occasionally favored youth, but it remains rare at the highest rungs of political office and in contemporary times. The 2024 presidential election may change that. John F. Kennedy and Barack Obama, both elected in their 40s, wrestled with public perceptions that they were too inexperienced to be president. Nevertheless, the two Democrats, a generation apart, both won their first bids for the White House and had relatively high public approval throughout their time in office, benefitting in part from the “novelty” of being young. In Obama’s case, voters were less concerned with his youth than with competitor John McCain’s older age.

For his part, Reagan remained jovial about his very public aging. At the White House Correspondents’ Association’s annual dinner in 1987, he joked, “I am aware of my age. When I go in for a physical now, they no longer ask me how old I am. They just carbon-date me.” Humor is one thing Biden learned to lean into when it comes to discussing his age. But unlike Reagan, Biden has presided in an era of 24-hour news cycles and social media, limiting his team’s ability to choreograph and control what is and isn’t known about how his age may be impacting his mobility and cognition. And Americans clearly no longer consider aging politicians a laughing matter.

This is an opinion and analysis article, and the views expressed by the author or authors are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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