When former United States President Bill Clinton showed up at the White House in early 2023, he was there to join President Joe Biden to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Family and Medical Leave Act. It was hard to avoid the fact that it had been three decades since Clinton was in office — yet at 77, he’s somehow three years younger than Biden.
Biden, now 80 years old, is the first octogenarian to occupy the Oval Office — and his main rival, former President Donald Trump, is 77. A Monmouth University poll taken in October 2023 showed that roughly three-quarters of American voters think Biden is too old for office, and nearly half of voters think Trump is too old to serve.
My former boss, President George H.W. Bush, happily chose not to challenge Clinton again in the 1996 election. If he had run and won, he would have been 72 at the 1997 inauguration. Instead, he enjoyed a great second act filled with humanitarian causes, skydiving and grandchildren.
Bush’s post-presidential life, and American ideals of retirement in general, raise the question of why these two men, Biden and Trump — who are more than a decade and a half beyond the average American retirement age — are stepping forward again for one of the hardest jobs in the world.
A TREND TOWARDS OLDER PEOPLE
Trump and Biden are two of the three oldest men to ever serve as president. For 140 years, William Henry Harrison held the record as the oldest person ever elected president, until Ronald Reagan came along. Harrison was a relatively spry 68 when he took office in 1841, and Reagan was 69 at his first inauguration in 1981.
When Reagan left office at age 77, he was the oldest person ever to have served as president. Trump left office at age 74, making him the third-oldest to hold the office, behind Reagan and Biden.
For others, it’s identity-driven. Many of the senior leaders I’ve seen have worked so hard for so long that their entire identity is tied to their jobs. Plus, years of hard work means they don’t have hobbies to enjoy in their remaining years.
Another theory is ego. Some lawmakers think they’re indispensable — that they’re the only ones who can possibly do the job. They’re not exactly humble.
In the political world, their interest is often about power as well. These are the types who think: Why wouldn’t I want to keep casting deciding votes in a closely divided House or Senate, or keep giving speeches and flying around on Air Force One as president, or telling myself I’m saving democracy?
It’s easy to see why so few of them want to walk away.
There have been calls to impose age limits for federal elected office. After all, federal law enforcement officers have mandatory retirement at 57. So do national park rangers. Yet the most stressful job in the world has no upper age limit.
For those who think mandatory retirement is ageist and arbitrary, there are other options: Republican candidate Nikki Haley has called for compulsory mental competency tests for elected leaders who are 75 and older, though she has said passing wouldn’t be a required qualification for office, and failing wouldn’t be cause for removal.
A September 2023 poll shows huge majorities of Americans support competency testing. That way, the public would know who was sharp and who was not. Sounds like a fine idea to me.
So does having the generosity to step aside and think of others. And having the wisdom to realise that life is short and about more than just going to work.
And having the grace to do what John F. Kennedy, the nation’s second-youngest president, once said: To pass the torch to a new generation of Americans.
My colleague professor Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, puts it well: “I’m 70, so I have great sympathy for these people: 80 is looking a lot younger than it used to, as far as I’m concerned. But no, it’s ridiculous. We’ve got to get back to electing people in their 50s and early 60s.”
And the polling shows that most Americans would say, “Amen, brother.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Mary Kate Cary is an Adjunct Professor of Politics and Director of Think Again, University of Virginia.