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Biden’s Age Might Not Be a Problem
The actuarial tables aren’t as dire as some suggest, and the president’s personality appears to improve with age.
CONFESSION: FOR THE PAST COUPLE OF YEARS, I fell into the “Biden shouldn’t run again” camp. Too old. Better not to ask Americans to re-elect a man who will be 82 in November of 2024 and . . . you know the rest. Nikki Haley summed it up tactlessly in April: “The idea that he would make it until 86 years old is not something that I think is probable.”
But I’ve thought better of it. Yes, Biden is the oldest man ever elected president and bids fair to break his own record, but that’s not entirely a bad thing.
Americans are awfully dubious about Biden’s fitness. Only 32 percent in a recent poll said he has the “mental sharpness to serve effectively as president,” and a mere 33 percent said he had the physical health to serve out another term. By contrast, 54 percent believe Trump, 77, has the mental fitness to serve and 64 percent believe he has the physical fitness to serve. (I know. I know.)
So Biden has some work to do to prove that he’s not senile or decrepit. This has been a favorite GOP talking point since 2020, yet Biden has not been able to debunk it despite owning the bully pulpit, so something has to change there. On the other hand, to the degree that people are simply concerned about age per se, there are many reasons to rest easy.
Nikki Haley is wrong. If you go to the Social Security longevity calculator and punch in Biden’s sex and date of birth, you find that he can expect to live until age 89.1. That would carry him through a second term and then some, but that is just an average for all 80-year-old American men, and doesn’t take account of other reasons to expect Biden to age very well. He has advanced levels of education and wealth and lives in a safe neighborhood. He is white (alas, race does matter in longevity), married, and has a circle of good friends. He attends church. He doesn’t drink or smoke and exercises five days a week. Other than a weakness for ice cream (which he clearly eats only in moderation), his diet seems good and his weight is in the healthy range. His father lived until 86 and his mother until 92.
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There’s one more thing: Biden is president of the United States and it seems that people who achieve this office have a tendency to outlive others in their cohorts.
So worries that Biden is going to die before 2028 are overblown. Obviously, you can’t rule it out—age is still the greatest risk factor for death—but it’s likely that he will serve out his term.
WHILE WE AMERICANS WORSHIP YOUTH to a preposterous degree, there is actually quite a lot to be said for age. Konrad Adenauer took office in postwar West Germany at age 73 and went on to steer the nation through de-Nazification and economic recovery, leaving office at the age of 87—and that was in 1966. Biden is serving an equally vital function—keeping the United States from a truly unthinkable Trump return.
As the Economist notes, being old has its disadvantages, but older people have some desirable qualities, too. For one thing, they’re happier than younger people. Though it may seem counterintuitive to our youth-obsessed culture, it seems to be the case that happiness is U-shaped. People start out their adult lives pretty happy, then experience a drop in middle age, and get progressively happier in their later years. This pattern holds true across nations and cultures.
Though many Republican primary voters probably hate the idea of a happy president, the rest of us can see the benefits. Happy people are less likely than others to be spiteful, petty, distracted, self-absorbed, or erratic. The Economist notes research showing that older people have
fewer rows [arguments] and come up with better solutions to conflict. They are better at controlling their emotions, better at accepting misfortune and less prone to anger. In one study, for instance, subjects were asked to listen to recordings of people supposedly saying disparaging things about them. Older and younger people were similarly saddened, but older people less angry and less inclined to pass judgment, taking the view, as one put it, that ‘you can't please all the people all the time.’
If you’re thinking of a certain mango-hued counterexample, look, he has never been a normal human and defies all categories. For most people, research confirms, anger declines throughout life.
Biden, by contrast, does seem to have mellowed with age. I can recall a younger Biden who got himself into multiple embarrassing gaffes because he was prickly, sensitive about his dignity, and quick to anger. The older Biden is more comfortable in his skin.
It’s no good sighing over the fact that a 70-year-old Biden would be so much better than this Biden. Take it from someone who is 66: Accept life as it is. If Biden had bowed out of the 2024 race, we can all fantasize about the ideal candidates who could have taken his place—Gretchen Whitmer, Josh Shapiro, or Amy Klobuchar—but what are the chances the Democratic party would deny the nomination to the sitting vice president? And who thinks Kamala Harris would be a stronger general-election candidate than Biden?
Aging is a challenge. I constantly buy broccoli forgetting that I had some in the back of the refrigerator. I double-book meetings and have to make apologies. I struggle to remember words that used to be at my fingertips. I can’t make out what people are saying when there’s a lot of background noise. But I don’t fret about small slights, rage at drivers who cut me off in traffic, or nurse grudges. I take more joy in nature and the simple pleasures. When I told my sister-in-law that I’ve discovered a new interest in birds as I walk the dog, she sent me a tweet that amused her: “One day you’re young and carefree and the next you’re like ‘Is that a tufted titmouse at my birdfeeder?!’”
There are advantages to aging. Joe Biden is better at 80 than he was at 50. He is very likely to serve another term just fine. And there is not a particle of doubt that in a Biden/Trump rematch, the fate of the republic rests on the old(er) guy winning.