We should care about Biden’s age now he’s president — but not in the way you think

After Donald Trump’s presidency, can we still credibly make the argument that emotional maturity comes with age?

Clémence Michallon
New York City
Sunday 08 November 2020 15:48
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Joe Biden reaches out to Trump supporters in victory speech: ‘Let’s give each other a chance’

By electing Joe Biden, America has chosen its oldest president in three centuries. Biden is 77 years old; by the time he’s inaugurated, he will be 78. (That’s right, the new president was born on 20 November, which makes him a Scorpio.) 

Prior to him, America’s oldest elected president was none other than Donald Trump, who was 70 years old when he won the vote and took office. (I know you’re wondering, so: Trump was born on 14 June and is thus a Gemini.)

Much has been made of Biden’s age. It makes sense, to some extent. Each president can hope to spend up to eight long, stressful, challenging years in the White House. Of course we should be devoting some thought to unpleasant perspectives such as, well, possible death and illness. If the show Succession teaches us anything, it’s that, well, wealth redistribution matters, but also that old men in positions of power would do well to plan for the future.

Biden’s strategy, so far, has mainly consisted in picking a relatively young vice president as a potential successor. Kamala Harris is 56 – 20 years older than the youngest vice president to take office, the then 36-year-old John C Breckinridge, but also 15 years younger than the oldest, the then 71-year-old Alben W Barkley. 

Of all the talking points used by the Trump campaign against Harris, her age was mostly a non-issue, probably because 56 sits in that comfortable not-too-young-but-not-to-old range that we tend to favour for our politicians.

Ironically, given that Trump himself could face the same question, his campaign did go after Biden based on his age, repeatedly seeking to paint him as a senile old man lacking the necessary stamina. This came along with the repeated implication that Biden would accidentally usher in the “radical” (a word used by GOP Ronna McDaniel in an August tweet) Harris by way of his age, thus – according to her worldview – plunging the country into a hellscape built on socialism and universal healthcare.

Presumably, the attacks on Harris’s character were because the Trump campaign suspected the same as the rest of us: that despite claims to the contrary, Biden will likely be a one-term president who chose his running mate with that in mind. 

It’s not beyond the realms of possibility that in the next election Biden could stand again or the Democrats could even choose someone a little more suited to the progressive wing of the party (an Elizabeth Warren or Julian Castro type, for instance) or even a centrist in his own image (here’s looking at you, Pete Buttigieg – and probably not at you any more, Beto O’Rourke.) But the most likely scenario is that Harris will stand by him loyally for four years and then seek to finally break the glass ceiling and become America’s first female president in 2024.

The ways in which we think about age can tell us a lot about the ways in which we think about power. It’s telling that the US has a minimum age for presidential candidates (35 years) but no upper limit. If you’re going to make ageism central to your democratic process, why should it only work one way? How can you be too young for the presidency but not too old? Presumably, it’s because we tend to assign certain characteristics to old age, such as wisdom, knowledge and restraint, regardless of whether those assumptions bear out. But after Trump’s presidency, can we still credibly make the argument that ages brings with it emotional maturity?

The median age in the US stood at 38.2 years in 2018. Wouldn’t it make sense to have a president with the ability to speak for that generation? Seven decades on this Earth did not preclude the current inhabitant of the Oval Office (until 20 January) from throwing tantrums, tweeting in all caps much more often than necessary and – lest we forget – attempting to undermine American democracy during the last days of his failed bid for re-election. 

Why, then, are we still holding onto that persistent lie that maturity comes with age, rather than temperament? Would 31-year-old Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez really have behaved in a less presidential manner than that?

As a person living in the United States today, I’m not too fussed by the age of the new president-elect. And I certainly don’t think his current age precludes him in any way from performing his presidential duties. But I would welcome a larger selection of younger candidates in the playing field in the future. 

It’s time we recognised that there is a difference between experience and competence, before presidential races between two men over 70 for arguably the most important job on the planet become the norm. I’m tired of waiting, personally, and I’m not getting any younger.

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