Nine Theses About Joe Biden's Age...
On the super-difficult choice of old vs. old and crazy.
This is an perfectly valid issue to raise. Joe Biden is 80 years old right now; that is already the oldest age of any U.S. president ever.1 If he is re-elected, he will be 82 years old when he’s sworn in. He will be 86 if he finishes his second term — which, by the by, only a third of U.S. voters are convinced would happen. Folks can talk about modern health care and how today’s 80 years old is not like last century’s 80 years old all they want — Joe Biden is still a very, very old.
The polling that has been conducted on this issue also shows that no matter how much Biden boosters want to move past this, voters have not gotten there yet. Pick your poll — Associated Press, Fox News — and the result is the same. Heck, in the AP poll, 69% of Democrats stated that Biden was too old to be effective for all four years. When the media says that voters are concerned, they’re not lying.
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This is obviously not just about Biden. Between Warren Buffett, Mitch McConnell, Dianne Feinstein, Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas, Charles Grassley, and Nancy Pelosi, America’s leadership caste has quite the number of gray hairs. As Nate Silver noted earlier this month: “we’re seeing serious consequences from [aging politicians], whether it’s Mitch McConnell repeatedly freezing up during press conferences or Diane Feinstein’s manifestly diminished capacities.” Every time any of them has a senior moment, it reminds everyone that Biden is also old. Or, as Silver puts it, “This election is probably going to be close, and Trump might be only one Biden-has-a-McConnell-moment away from winning.”
It’s not just that Biden is old — he looks old. The hard-working staff here at
Drezner’s World googled “Biden old” for stories because that’s the kind of crackerjack research team I have. Here’s a picture from one story from The Hill this past July:
It is my professional political opinion that Joe Biden looks like a raisin. A raisin that has been sucking on a lemon for the last decade. When he’s walking, he looks like a shriveled raisin looking for more lemon juice to drink up.
While Biden might look very old, he does not seem to have lost a step on the cognitive side of things. At least, that is the conclusion one should draw from Dave Weigel’s Semafor column about the Biden books that have been published, like Franklin Foer’s The Last Politician: “Foer’s book, the most far-reaching study of the Biden White House so far, presents an aging president who’s nonetheless fully engaged in the job, stumbling more when he loses his temper… than when he loses his train of thought…. In the first books to document his presidency, the picture is of a leader who sounds shaky in public, but is the dominant force in his White House.”
The problem for Biden, as Weigel also notes in his column, is that “book-buyers don’t seem especially interested in reading more about a figure they’ve seen in politics for decades who is now overseeing a relatively quiet White House.” This suggests something that I think might be driving the polling about Biden’s age. A central tenet of Drezner’s World is that the overwhelming majority of U.S. voters are rationally ignorant. They have little incentive to actively seek out information about politics, but will instead form opinions on the scraps of news that they come by in their daily activities. My thesis is that ordinary Americans likely see video of Biden on a weekly basis, even if it’s on mute on a television in a bar. They probably hear Biden much less. In other words, rationally ignorant voters are getting plenty of evidence about Biden’s age, but very little evidence that he’s still in possession of his mental faculties. And that helps to explain the polling on Biden’s age. He looks old and he rarely provides sound bites — it’s not shocking that based on these inputs, voters question whether he’s up for the job.
Yes, the media is playing a role here. As Derek Thompson recently noted, “the sheer volume of Old Biden content reflects that we're barreling toward a rematch between one guy whose depravity is very old news and another whose superpower is not making much news, and that's a genuine crisis for takes.” It’s not a big role, however. Biden’s age is a fact. The polling data is a fact. The media has very little need to gin up the age take.
You know who has a legitimate problem sounding coherent? That would be Donald J. Trump, Biden’s predecessor and likely 2024 challenger. In just the past week, Trump claimed that he defeated Barack Obama in 2016, that Americans need ID to buy bread, and that Biden is leading the U.S. into the Second World War. He froze up during one of this campaign ramblings in South Dakota. Mainstream media observers are beginning to ask the same questions about Trump’s age as Biden’s It’s not surprising that the Fox News poll found that 52% of Americans don’t think that Trump possesses the “mental soundness to serve” as president. This might explain why Trump, of all people, does not think Biden is too old to be president. So all I ask is that when campaign reporters bring up Biden’s age, they also ask hard questions about Trump’s age.
Ceteris paribus, I remain confident that Biden’s age does not harm him as the election nears. The more that people hear Biden speak, the less voters will be concerned about his age. If anything, we will likely see a replay of the expectations game of 2020. Trump ‘s campaign kept suggesting Biden’s basement campaign had left him soft and vulnerable for the presidential debates. Expectations were lowered so far that Biden easily exceeded them.2 Given that Trump has likely lost more cognitive steps than Biden, I would expect the 2024 debates to go even better for the current president.
The next oldest is Ronald Reagan at the end of second term, and let’s not forget that Reagan received his Alzheimer’s diagnosis when he was around the same age Joe Biden will be if he’s sworn in a second time.