Old News: The Elderly President Is Running
In late 2019, Politico asked a high-ranking Biden aide about the candidate’s age. “If Biden is elected,” the anonymous advisor said, “he’s going to be 82 years old in four years and he won’t be running for reelection.” The following month, another aide told Vanity Fair that Biden had signaled to advisors that he would “quietly indicate that he will almost certainly not run for a second term while declining to make a promise.”
That was then. Though Biden never did forswear a second term, thus avoiding Teddy Roosevelt’s 1904 mistake which made him an instant lame duck, it was widely assumed at the start of this term that he would be a “transitional” president. No longer. Today, all of the signs are pointing toward another run.
Traveling in Africa last month, Jill Biden was asked whether the decision about seeking reelection had been made and whether all that remained to be done was to choose a time and place for the announcement. “Pretty much,” replied the First Lady. “He says he’s not done. He’s not finished what he’s started. And that’s what’s important.”
The structure of the president’s state of the union address, with its refrain of “Let’s finish the job,” suggests a candidate, not a valedictory by a retiring president. Most of all, the president’s pivots on two matters that could be political vulnerabilities—crime and immigration—point to a campaign mindset.
Voters, even specifically Democratic voters, have delivered messages about the importance of crime in the past couple of years. They elected former police officer Eric Adams to the mayoralty of New York, ousted progressives Chesa Boudin and Marilyn Moseby from prosecutors’ offices in San Francisco and Baltimore, respectively, and denied Chicago’s Lori Lightfoot renomination for mayor. The mayors of Atlanta and Seattle also decided against seeking reelection due to public concerns about high crime rates. So it was noteworthy that just days after Lightfoot’s toppling, Biden announced that he would not veto congressional action to nullify the District of Columbia’s proposed criminal code changes. Over the mayor’s veto, the city council voted to eliminate nearly all mandatory minimum sentences and reduce criminal penalties for carjackings and other crimes. Biden explained in a tweet:
I support D.C. Statehood and home-rule—but I don’t support some of the changes D.C. Council put forward over the Mayor’s objections—such as lowering penalties for carjackings. If the Senate votes to overturn what D.C. Council did—I’ll sign it.
After two years of brutal headlines and low polling numbers about the crush of asylum seekers at the border, Biden has toughened rules for would-be immigrants, requiring them to ask for asylum in the first country they reach rather than electing to make their application only in the United States. The administration has paired this with increasing humanitarian parole from four especially troubled neighbors: Cuba, Haiti, Venezuela, and Nicaragua. The result has been a 38 percent decline in the number of encounters at the border since the policy was adopted in January. Deportations are up—but so are legal admissions. And while immigration will remain a divisive issue in national politics, the reduction of chaos at border crossings is clearly in Biden’s political interest.
So he’s showing some savvy. What he has not been able to do is alter the actuarial tables. If reelected, Biden will be 86 in 2028.
Perhaps 86 is the new 76. People are living longer and better than ever. In 1990, there were 36,000 Americans aged 100 or above. In 2021, there were almost 98,000. The Census Bureau projects that by 2050, American centenarians will number between 265,000 and 4.2 million. Certainly we see examples of elderly people thriving, working, and creating until advanced ages. Clint Eastwood’s latest film, Cry Macho, debuted in 2021, when he was 90. Rupert Murdoch continues to preside over a malign media empire at the age of 91. Warren Buffett, the world’s fifth-wealthiest individual, runs Berkshire Hathaway at the age of 92, and takes advice from 99-year-old board member Charlie Munger.
Besides, the life expectancy of an 82 year old male is 7.32 years. So, everything’s fine, right? Chances are that Biden will not just live out his second term, but also stand behind his successor on the Capitol steps on inauguration day 2029.
Nor are actuarial tables like tablets from Mt. Sinai. They are averages. People who are wealthy, have good medical care, exercise, eat well, and so forth are likelier to reach 95 or 100 than those who don’t.
And yet, it’s not crazy for voters to be concerned about the possibility of the man they elect dying in office, which is far more likely with an 83 or 85 year old than with a younger person. And then there’s the question of vigor and mental acuity. Biden has not shown any signs of dementia and he probably never will (90 percent of elderly people do not), but that doesn’t mean he’s as sharp as he used to be. One recent poll showed that 68 percent of voters think Biden is too old for another term. Another found that even among Democrats, only 37 percent would like to see him seek a second term.
Biden made one unwise decision when he was younger that haunts him now—the pledge to name an African American woman as vice president. That promise limited his options drastically and saddled him with a vice president who has proved deeply disappointing, to say nothing of unpopular. It may not be justified. Perhaps she’s simply had a few stumbles that were blown out of proportion. But negative views appear to have hardened, and because of the racial dynamics of the party and the country, he cannot replace her on the ticket, which only adds to people’s anxieties about a second term.
Biden cannot dump Harris, but she could withdraw. People rarely put the good of the country before their own ambitions, but if Harris were to step aside in favor of a more acceptable alternative for vice president in 2024, she would be a heroine. With the GOP still careening into crazy, the Democrats are the only hope for rationality in the near future. And a Biden/Klobuchar or Biden/Whitmer or Biden/Booker ticket would be a much safer bet.