How Old Is “Too Old”?

This week former Vice President Joe Biden formally declared his candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination.  He joins a very crowded field of politicians vying for the chance to square off against President Donald Trump in 2020.

bernie-and-joe-like-donald-trumpJoe Biden is 76 years old.  He was born on November 20, 1942; if he were to be elected, he would be 77 on Election Day, and 78 when he takes office.  Bernie Sanders, who is another candidate for the Democratic nomination, is 77 years old and, being born on September 8, 1941, would be 79 on Election Day in 2020.  If either of those candidates won, they would easily set a new record for the oldest person to be newly elected to the presidency — a record now held by the current occupant of the White House, who was a mere 70 when he was inaugurated.  (The oldest President to be elected, period, was Ronald Reagan, who was 73 when he won reelection in a landslide in 1984 — a record that would be obliterated if the 2020 race turned out to be either Trump-Biden or Trump-Sanders.)

There have been some old Presidents in American history — some good, some not so much — and clearly people’s perceptions of what it means to be old in our current day are changing.  As average life spans increase and medical care, diet, fitness, and general attention to health improve, some people argue that aging is really all about a state of mind, and “60 is the new 40.”  And no doubt Biden and Sanders will produce medical reports that show that they are healthy, active, vibrant, and ready to handle the demands of an incredibly taxing job.

Still, Biden and Sanders are really pushing the presidential age envelope into uncharted territory.  How will people react when, as Election Day nears, they really ponder the prospect of an 80-year-old President?  No doubt people will be looking carefully at all three of the septuagenarians — Trump, Biden, and Sanders — for signs of age-related physical feebleness and mental slippage.  Age is something that can’t be hidden, and one serious memory glitch during a debate could be all she wrote for a candidacy.

I don’t think it is improperly ageist to wonder about how age affects fitness for the Oval Office.  In 2020, we may be answering the question:  “How old is too old?”

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