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Whether Trump or Biden wins, the U.S. will have its oldest president ever; should that matter?

UPDATED: Mon., Nov. 2, 2020

President Donald Trump and Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden participate in the final presidential debate Oct. 22 in Nashville, Tenn.  (Patrick Semansky)
President Donald Trump and Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden participate in the final presidential debate Oct. 22 in Nashville, Tenn. (Patrick Semansky)

Whether President Donald Trump or former Vice President Joe Biden emerges victorious in this week’s election, the United States will inaugurate its oldest-ever president on Jan. 20.

Presidential historians and experts on aging say that while the candidates’ advanced age has important implications for the presidency, it should not be disqualifying, and the fact that the two men are roughly the same age means voters can look to other factors to decide between the two septuagenarians.

Trump, 74, already set the record as the oldest president at inauguration in 2017. Biden, who will turn 78 before Inauguration Day, has said he sees himself as a “bridge” to a younger generation of Democratic leaders and signaled he may serve only one term.

“The framers of the Constitution thought age was an issue, but they thought about it pretty differently,” said Cornell Clayton, director of the Thomas S. Foley Institute of Public Policy and Public Service at Washington State University, pointing to the minimum age of 35 to become president. “They thought that being too young would be the problem.”

“I don’t think they really foresaw what we have today,” Clayton said. “Americans are living a lot longer than they ever have, so in some ways it’s not so extraordinary, but clearly the fact that we now have men in their 70s who are assuming the office should raise lots of concerns, because we all know we deteriorate physically and mentally as we age.”

‘I believe there’s a lot of ageism in the country’

A 2019 Pew Research Center survey found just 3% of Democratic voters said they preferred a presidential candidate in their 70s. Nearly three-quarters said they favored someone in their 40s or 50s.

But Caroline Cicero, an associate professor of gerontology at the University of Southern California, said there is no reason for either man’s age to disqualify him from the presidency. Age-based discrimination, she said, is pervasive and should be questioned not just in politics but in all aspects of society.

“I believe there’s a lot of ageism in the country that prompts people to say either candidate must be unfit for office because of his age,” Cicero said. “I do understand that people might be frustrated that two older white men are the choices, but that doesn’t mean they’re unfit because of their age.”

Len Fishman, director of the Gerontology Institute at the University of Massachusetts Boston, said research and actuarial studies measuring life expectancy suggest both candidates are likely to remain healthy through the next term, but they should ultimately be judged on how they perform.

“Based on what we know about these two men, it’s reasonable to have confidence that for the next four years, they are likely to be in good physical and cognitive health,” Fishman said. “Biden himself has acknowledged that it’s legitimate for people to wonder about his fitness based on his age, and he’s gone on to say that they should answer that question by observing his performance. I think that’s a reasonable approach.”

Clayton pointed out that other professions – including commercial pilots and judges in some states – have mandatory retirement ages because of concerns about cognitive decline and the demands of the job, but he said the odds of a constitutional amendment to age-limit the president are slim to none.

“Unlike other professions, the presidency is different in that they have to put themselves in front of the public every four years, and (voters) get to make a decision whether or not you’re competent,” Clayton said. “So there is that safeguard, I suppose.”

A study released Sept. 25 by a group of aging researchers based on the two candidates’ publicly available medical information concluded that both Biden and Trump are likely “super agers,” a group defined as “people (who) maintain their mental and physical functioning into late life and tend to live longer than the average person their age.”

Fishman, who headed New Jersey’s health department and later led New England’s largest senior housing and health nonprofit, called the “super ager” term “unnecessary hyperbole.”

“We’ve added nearly 30 years to the human lifespan in over a century,” Fishman said. “Now, people expect to live into their 80s and 90s. … Biden and Trump are part of this wave, and they are representative of the most privileged cohort of older Americans. They are well-educated, well-off financially, they have access to the best health care that money can buy.”

“As affluent white men, yes, they are likely to live longer than the average person,” Cicero said. “Super agers have active brain and physical fitness. We know, for example, that according to his doctor and other reports, Biden works out regularly and pays attention to what he eats. We see reports and photos of Trump playing golf on his courses, but while leisurely, golf, especially with a motorized cart, is not considered aerobic exercise.”

‘The healthiest individual ever elected to the presidency’ — really?

According to multiple reports, Trump believes that exercise is unwise, arguing that a person is born with a finite amount of energy that is depleted by too much activity. The White House has withheld some information about his health, including around an unplanned hospital trip in November 2019 and his diagnosis with COVID-19 in early October.

“I think we need to require much greater transparency with respect to health,” Clayton said. “Many presidents have been fairly secretive about their health records.”

As a candidate in 2015, Trump released a letter from his doctor claiming, “Mr. Trump, I can state unequivocally, will be the healthiest individual ever elected to the presidency.” The doctor, Harold Bornstein, later said Trump had dictated the letter to him.

Trump and his allies have made a concerted effort to paint Biden, who has struggled with a stutter since childhood and famously misspeaks at times, as senile. Meanwhile, the president has pushed back on speculation about his own cognitive decline, boasting in July that he had passed a test that involved repeating the words “person, woman, man, camera, TV” in order.

The Biden campaign released a report from his doctor in in December 2019 that called the former vice president a “healthy, vigorous, 77-year-old male.” Commenting on the report, President Barack Obama’s former physician said Biden was “not in bad shape for his age, but I wouldn’t say he’s in outstanding health.”

Cicero and Fishman emphasized that age also has its benefits.

“There is intelligence that comes from age and experience, and from building on lessons learned in the past,” Cicero said. “That is definitely valid when considering a leader.”

“When you’re in a very demanding job,” Fishman said, “if you have encountered an experience before or something like it, you have a tremendous advantage in deciding how to address it.”

President Ronald Reagan, who left office at age 77 as the oldest-yet American president, has been cited to both support and dismiss concerns about a president’s advanced age. On the campaign trail in 1980, Reagan vowed to resign if the White House physician ever found him cognitively unfit for office.

“When it comes to retirement, the criterion should be fitness for work, not year of birth,” Reagan said in 1982, announcing his support for legislation banning employment discrimination based on age.

Reagan was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease five years after he left office. Some, including his own son Ron Jr., have speculated that Reagan experienced some cognitive decline during his presidency, but no definitive proof has emerged.

Robert Donnelly, an associate professor of history at Gonzaga University, said Reagan’s second term, when he became less involved in managing every aspect of his administration, shows the importance of an older president having capable and trusted aides.

“It really comes down to who he will surround himself with, and whether or not he trusts those people and can lead those people,” Donnelly said. “By the end of Reagan’s second term, his health is affecting things, he’s paying less attention to the people that he’s surrounded with, and that’s why we get scandals like the Iran-Contra Affair.”

‘A bridge to the next generation’

Vice President Mike Pence and Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., both dodged questions about their running mates’ age and health at the vice-presidential debate Oct. 7, but Clayton and Donnelly said Trump and Biden’s age could make their VP picks more important than usual.

Biden has declined to rule out running for a second term – perhaps because doing so could sap his political capital – but he has called himself a “transition candidate” and a “bridge” to a new generation of Democrats, signaling he may step aside after four years and leave the 56-year-old Harris as the party’s standard-bearer.

“The degree to which he’s emphasized his selection of the vice president is because he sees himself as a bridge to the next generation,” Clayton said, pointing out that both parties’ leaders in Congress are even older than Biden.

“It is remarkable, this moment in American history,” he said. “For the first time, the majority of voters will be post-Baby Boomers. We’re in a period where we’re transitioning as a country to a younger generation, and yet our leadership is extremely old.”

The United States has seen 22 presidents serve one term or less, but there is little precedent for doing so voluntarily.

Donelly said James K. Polk, a somewhat reluctant candidate who pledged during his campaign to serve only one term when he was elected in 1844, may be the nearest precedent for a potential one-term Biden presidency. James Buchanan, who served as Polk’s secretary of state, also committed to serving a single term.

Rutherford B. Hayes, after a contested election, agreed not to seek a second term as part of the Compromise of 1877 that ended the Reconstruction era after the Civil War. Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson both had the opportunity to run for election twice after finishing the term of a president who died while in office, but opted not to.

Margaret O’Mara, a University of Washington history professor, said Johnson decided not to run for a second term “because the Vietnam War had become such a political liability for him that he knew he might not win the Democratic nomination, much less the presidency.”

“Usually, once presidents are in office, the lure of running for a second term is impossible to pass up,” O’Mara said. “Making things more difficult is that the modern era has often categorized one-term presidents as ‘failures,’ even if their personal and political reputations brighten in their post-presidency years. Biden may be the exception to the rule, but he too may have a hard time stepping aside once he is in, because winning re-election has become so strongly correlated with having a consequential presidency.”

Donnelly said there is plenty of precedent for a president offering the VP spot as a launching pad for a future presidential run – he pointed to Reagan and George H.W. Bush – but that’s no guarantee of a spot in the Oval Office.

“Even if it’s a bridge to Kamala Harris,” he said, “she still has to win the election.”

Ultimately, Cicero said, the fact that Biden and Trump are essentially the same age means that shouldn’t be the deciding factor for voters.

“With both of them being in their 70s and being only three years apart, I think people don’t have to look at their age,” Cicero said. “You can look at which candidate is better qualified, which candidate has the policies you want to see put forth over the next four years, and which candidate you want to hear from each day as you live your daily life.”


Orion Donovan-Smith's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.

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