How old is too old to run for president? The answer isn’t cut and dried | Ray Landis

There’s something to be said for age and wisdom in the most important job in the world

December 4, 2022 6:30 am

President Joe Biden speaks at the Democratic National Committee (DNC) summer meeting September 8, 2022 in National Harbor, Maryland. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

The 2022 elections are over and as the U.S. Congress and State Legislatures get ready to convene in early 2023 a lot of the talk among political pundits is about…the 2024 elections.

A main topic of conversation is whether President Joe Biden should run for re-election. And that discussion inevitably turns to the president’s age. Joe Biden recently celebrated his 80th birthday and is already the oldest President in our nation’s history.

After we ignore the politically motivated, ugly Fox News bloviations about Biden’s abilities, the real question is whether someone in their 80s is capable of serving as president. 

A simple measure of age is not a good indication of whether any particular individual is able to perform the physical and mental tasks of the presidency, however. Arguably, the most important aspect of being president of the United States is having the ability to choose competent people to give advice and carry out decisions.

Age and experience should enhance this.

Many Americans put a premium on another aspect of the presidency, however. The president serves as the public face of the United States, and we have been conditioned that age is a detriment to portraying strength and innovation. 

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Our history books celebrate the Kennedy administration as a time of reinvigoration in the United States after the sleepy Eisenhower era, yet the 50s were a time of massive advances in science and technology. But Dwight Eisenhower was in his 60s and in ill health in his final years as President, while John Kennedy was the youngest person to take office, so the perception is the nation crossed a threshold with JFK’s election.

It is true generational shifts in political leadership are necessary, as it is important for new ideas and new leaders to emerge. For example, a few weeks ago U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., recognized it was time for her to step aside as head of the Democratic caucus in the U.S. House. But it was a strategic decision she viewed as critical to help promote Democratic priorities – it was not because she lacked the ability to do the job because of her age.

There is a danger in saying Biden should not run for re-election because he is too old, or that Pelosi gave up her leadership position because of her age. It reinforces the perception that age alone can prevent an individual from doing something, whether it is serving in a political office or working in a factory.

Such a concept is particularly concerning at this time because our population is growing older. If we fail to adjust our attitude toward the place of older people in society, we could exacerbate our current economic inequities.

We are already seeing the first indications of the impact of demographic change. The persistent labor shortage experienced by businesses has been blamed on the pandemic or on a change in how younger people approach work. But another explanation is that older people are leaving the workforce and there simply are not enough younger people to fill all their positions.

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Meanwhile older individuals who do wish to remain employed face continued obstacles. In a nation which still relies on employer-based health insurance for those under the age of 65, the danger of losing a job for an older worker is exacerbated. Although Affordable Health Care Act policies are now more widely available and less expensive, many older employees, especially those with chronic health conditions, work as much for their health insurance as their salary.

Employers, on the other hand, focus on costs and profit margins. And older workers tend to be more expensive to employ than younger workers. Too many individuals older than 50 in a workforce can drive up employer insurance premiums, and long-time employees are paid more. 

The reaction of employers may range from a reluctance to hire older workers to making working conditions so difficult that long-time employees have little choice but to leave. Age discrimination laws were designed to protect older workers from such occurrences, but it has been extraordinarily difficult to prove age discrimination in most cases that have arisen.

A focus on the plight of older workers may seem like a small matter in the bigger picture of the world today. But it is indicative of how our approach to aging must adjust as our population changes.

Like Nancy Pelosi, Joe Biden may decide that now is the time for a new generation of Democrats to lead the party as candidates for President, or Democratic voters may choose someone else to be their standard bearer. But that decision should be based on how best to move the United States forward – not on the date on a birth certificate.

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Ray Landis
Ray Landis

A former spokesman for the Pennsylvania AARP, Ray E. Landis writes about the issues that matter to older Pennsylvanians. His work appears biweekly on the Capital-Star's Commentary Page. Readers may follow him on Twitter @RELandis.