At the center of most people’s political anxieties as the 2024 presidential election takes shape, is the age of the two likely candidates. Democratic incumbent Joe Biden is 80. Probable Republican nominee, former Republican President Donald Trump, is 77.
What is their current cognitive ability? What are the limits of their physical and mental stamina? Can they possibly finish their four-year term if elected in November 2024? Americans on both sides of the aisle and in the critical middle that decide elections have doubts about both candidates.
“With the advanced age of some U.S. political leaders in the spotlight, 79% of Americans favor maximum age limits for elected officials in Washington, D.C. And 74% support such limits for Supreme Court justices, according to a new Pew Research Center survey,” John Gramlich writes in an article published by the Pew Research Center.
“Only 3% of U.S. adults say it’s best for a president to be in their 70s or older,” a June Pew survey found. About half of Americans would prefer to see presidential candidates in their 50s, and a quarter prefer someone in their 60s, according to Pew.
Setting age limits for members of Congress and the presidency is not likely to happen. It would take a constitutional amendment approved by two-thirds of both the U.S. House and Senate and three-quarters of the states.
One other avenue for writing in age limits would be a constitutional convention, but this route has never been taken, and for good reason – once convened it could address any part of the governing document of the United States.
Voters are the only limit on the upper age limit of those elected to federal office.
“To be fair, there are legitimate questions about how Biden and Trump will age. But there’s no surefire way to see into the future,” Steve Lopez, an L.A. Times columnist and author, writes.
Why do we have such “old people” as our candidates? Lopez asks. “It’s partly because it takes a lot of money to run a campaign, and wealth is concentrated among older people. And older adults vote in higher numbers than younger people.” They also show up at primaries where candidates are chosen. The complainers who don’t participate are stuck with the choices given to them.
Trump and Biden are both seen as too old for a second term by most Americans, but that may be unfair.
“I think the simple and right answer is that ageism is unacceptable, and that it’s not about how old you are — it’s not about chronology — it’s about competency and ability,” Paul Irving, senior consultant to the Milken Institute,” told Lopez. “And yet, we all know that the older you get, the greater the risk for a number of ailments including cognitive impairment.”
Biden appears physically frailer than Trump. His stutter, a condition he has fought throughout his life, causes his speech to seem slurred at times – again affecting thoughts about his age and competency.
“Biden’s genteel manner, contrasted with Trump’s confrontational bluster, may also fuel the perception that one is old and addled while the other is a young buck itching for a good fight,” Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a political analyst for several decades, told Lopez. “We live in a coarse and abrasive culture, in which being civil might be seen as old-fashioned, or lacking in vitality.”
Still, Biden has kept up with one of the most demanding jobs in the world. Traveling across the globe, giving extended speeches, and meeting daily on pressing issues would exhaust much younger individuals.
“It’s not about age, it’s about behavior,” Jeffe, who was also born in the 1940s, says. “It’s not about, ‘Are you too old for the job?’ It’s ‘Can you get the job done?’”
If the race gets down to Biden versus Trump again, age shouldn’t matter much since they are just a few years apart. What should matter is character and where they would lead us in the challenging years ahead. But we know that perception, not necessarily past performance and future direction, is everything in politics.
“Assessing someone’s mental or physical fitness from brief observations of their speech, memory, or motor function, as voters seem to be doing with Biden and Trump, is highly unreliable,” Bonnie Wong, director of the neuropsychology program at Massachusetts General Hospital told Christina Pazzanese, a staff writer for Harvard Law. “When it comes to cognitive acuity, things are much more complex,” she said.
“A more important metric is executive function, the kind of higher-order reasoning, problem-solving, and abstract thinking that allow us to plan, organize, and work through problems in real time. Also important is how well individuals function in their real-world environment, whether it’s a surgeon in the operating room or a president in the Oval Office,” Wong told Pazzanese.
Biden has said age has given him “wisdom” and “experience,” both of which will aid him in a second term. Wong said there is some validity to the idea that with age comes wisdom. “You learn how to reason in a very fluid way, much differently than when you were younger,” she said. “There’s reasoning [and] there’s a lot of information that we’ve learned over the course of our lifetime that will stick with us.…”
Physical health is an important influence on cognitive performance. “If people who are physically healthy, active, they’re constantly moving, stimulated, doing things that provide novelty to their day-to-day experience — the novelty is really what helps make new connections and connects existing to new neurons — that type of physical activity and relatedness and ability to interact in the real world in real time is usually what I consider to be one of the strongest metrics and predictors.”
“The supreme quality of leadership is integrity,” former Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower said. Let that be the true test. We will also need statesmanship, the ability to make everyone work together, to face the challenges ahead.