By Bruce Frassinelli
He is the first octogenarian to hold the highest office in the land — but should he run for re-election in 2024?
Every time President Joe Biden appears in public, I cringe, not because of his politics necessarily, but I am concerned about what he might inadvertently say.
Biden observed his 80th birthday on Nov. 20, making him the first octogenarian to hold the highest office in the land, and he has said right along that he plans to run for re-election in 2024.
Shortly after that election, he would be 82, and, if re-elected, four years later when he would leave office, he would be 86.
The question I have been asking, along with many others, is whether this is too old to be handling the affairs of state as president, arguably one of the toughest jobs in the world.
When I have discussed this with friends and others, they facetiously (at least I think it’s facetiously) noted that I am no spring chicken at 83, and I am still writing columns without making incredibly stupid blunders.
Of course, aside from my own perceived competence, I have two sets of eyes which edit and proofread my columns before they are printed or posted online. A thank you to them, because they have from time to time saved me from one of the aforementioned blunders.
But it’s a quantum leap from writing columns for a regional magazine and functioning as president of the United States, just in case you didn’t know this.
This begs the question:
Should there be an age limit for all public offices?
For example, even though U.S. Supreme Court justices serve “for life,’’ unless they do something really stupid, judges and justices at the state and local levels here in New York must retire at age 70. There is an exception for state Supreme Court justices who can be “certificated’’ to serve for three additional two-year terms until the year in which they reach 76.
Even with this retirement age, though, some of these “retired’’ justices serve as “senior judges’’ and preside over trials and court cases until they are finally put out to pasture.
Most other offices have no age limits, so the late Rep. John Dingell, D-Michigan, for example, was the longest serving member of Congress at 59 years, leaving in 2015 at the age of 89. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-California, will be 90 on June 22 and plans to run for re-election when her six-year term is up in 2024 when she will be 91. If she wins and completes her term, she would be 97.
Polling results show that many Americans see Biden’s age as a factor if he runs again. Questions such as his physical and mental fitness have swirled around him since he began his presidential campaign in 2019 and have dogged him ever since, and now with an 80-year-old in office for the first time, those questions are sure to grow louder, especially when Biden commits speaking miscues as he often does or is spotted with cheat sheets telling him what to do and say as was the case during a trip abroad in November.
The previously oldest president, Ronald Reagan, left office when he was 77, but in his later years Reagan was viewed as pushing the boundaries of competent job performance, and it was later discovered that he was in the early stages of dementia.
Former president Donald Trump, who was 70 when he took office, also faced frequent questions about his age and mental fitness, particularly because he was and is prone to erratic statements. Trump, 76, announced shortly after the mid-term elections in November that he is a candidate for president in 2024. He would be 78 at the time of the 2024 General Election and, if elected, would be 82 when he would leave office on Jan. 20, 2029.
When I met a friend in Dunmore, Pennsylvania, a Scranton suburb, for lunch recently, I decided to hang out at the Boulevard Diner in Scranton, Biden’s hometown, to find out what registered voters in this part of the state thought of the age factor.
In my very unscientific survey, I included the first 25 registered voters I encountered — 13 Democrats, eight Republicans and four independents. Sixteen or 64% said they believe that Biden’s age and their perception of his stamina and mental abilities would be a factor in considering him for re-election in 2024.
Note that I did not ask any of them about any other issue such as the economy, abortion, etc.
Biden’s doctors have given him a clean bill of health as of now. The question of age irks the president. Although he has said that it’s appropriate for people to be concerned about his age and, on occasion, jokes about it, he insists that he is in good health, exercises daily and eats properly, even though he shows more limited mobility and stiffness after suffering a fractured foot a little more than two years ago while playing with his German shepherd, Major.
While age alone is not an automatic disqualifier, medical gerontologists I spoke to said that if he were re-elected president, someone of his age would need constant monitoring to confirm his continuing well-being.
It also does not help that some officials from his own party are calling for a younger candidate to carry the Democrats forward in 2024.
One of the most salient discussions on Biden’s age took place on the NPR program “Greater Boston” and featured Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, founder and CEO of the Yale Chief Executive Leadership Institute, and Mark Leibovich, staff writer at The Atlantic.
Leibovich said Biden should not run because of his age, but thought this was up to voters to decide. Leibovich noted that there are age limits for many important jobs where decision-making can be a matter of life and death. He prefers someone younger and feels the Democrats would be better served by choosing a younger option, although he did not name names.
Sonnenfeld ticked off the names of politicians and historical figures who have performed extremely well in their 70s and 80s, including Benjamin Franklin and Nancy Pelosi, who at 82 recently ended her run as leader of the U.S. House of Representatives. She was re-elected in November by her California constituents to another term and will serve until at least early 2025.
“We shouldn’t fall into this ageism trap,’’ Sonnenfeld said. “There’s really no justification for it — if anything we should retire the bias around age.’’
Some presidents bring humor into the age discussion. Who can forget one of the most memorable moments when in October 1984 President Ronald Reagan was asked the question on a lot of minds because of his haggard appearance following a previous debate — whether age should be a factor in a person running for office.
Reagan, who was 73 at the time and running for re-election, flashed an impish smile, then said, “I am not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent’s youth and inexperience.’’ The remark brought a roar from the audience and even a belly laugh from Reagan’s opponent, Democrat and former Vice President, Walter Mondale.
Obviously, the voters had no problem with Reagan’s age as he captured 525 electoral votes to Mondale’s 13 and with it nearly 59% of the popular vote.
When Biden was asked recently about the age factor on the venerable CBS news magazine program “60 Minutes,” and whether he was up to the tasks involved in the rigors of the office, he said, “Watch me,’’ as he ticked off positives involving his energy level and scheduling.
Biden is expected to announce his plans soon. “I’m a great respecter of fate, and this is, ultimately, a family decision,’’ Biden told reporters in November. “I think everybody wants me to run, but we’re going to have discussions about it.”