The Macomb Daily
Joe Biden is old, but age isn’t what it used to be
If there was any doubt that age was going to be a major issue in the 2024 presidential campaign, Nikki Haley just erased it.
In announcing her campaign for the Republican presidential nomination, the 51-yearold former governor of South Carolina proposed “mandatory mental competency tests for politicians over 75 years old.” Conveniently, the requirement would apply not only to 76-yearold Donald Trump, but also to 80-year-old Joe Biden.
Haley wasn’t just playing politics. She was also engaging, consciously or unconsciously, in one of the most sinister and under-researched forms of prejudice: age discrimination. To confront it, the president needs to both call it out and not call too much attention to it. There are advantages to getting old, but he doesn’t necessarily want to campaign on them.
I should confess that I am not immune to ageism myself. Like a lot of voters, I wonder whether an 82-year-old man (Biden’s age on Inauguration Day 2025) is up to the stresses of the world’s most demanding job. I also wonder about the fairness of freezing out a younger and more diverse generation of presidential candidates. But I have learned that — like a lot of things — aging isn’t what it used to be, and that I need to confront my own biases about it.
“The frontier of longevity has shifted in a positive way,” says Adam Felts, a researcher with the AgeLab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Its research focuses on people who are living longer and better than ever before, especially people in better socioeconomic circumstances with access to newer medicines and technologies.
One of his research groups is a panel of individuals who are all at least 85 years old. “When I see how sharp they are, it shapes my perspective around what is possible even for people in their mid to late 80s.” Looking at someone such as Biden, who has the best medical care available, “we may have to think about his age trajectory differently.” In fact, says Felts, we should be thinking differently about aging in general, for all Americans.
Humans tend to overestimate how much people within a given category have in common with one another, says Jessica Nordell, author of “The End of Bias.” When someone states that Biden is “too old” without pointing to specifics, it reflects an antipathy toward older people that is culturally ingrained.
Yes, there are well-documented age-related cognitive changes that happen with age, such as reduced processing speed and shortterm memory loss. But there is a positive side to age-related brain changes too, she says. The elderly are less easily distracted, have better emotional regulation and can show greater empathy. All that said, Biden probably doesn’t want to campaign on the redeeming qualities of octogenarians. And voters have concerns about his age: In focus groups, they note that at the end of a second term, he’ll be closer to 90 than 80. They’re concerned about his health and the likelihood of him surviving until 2029. In some discussions, people have asked about his chances of dying in office.
How Biden handles these issues will be a central test of his campaign.
Usually the sitting president stays above the fray while candidates of the opposing party duke it out in their primary. But as Haley demonstrates, younger Republican presidential candidates will be emphasizing their age.
Biden can minimize the age factor with smart scheduling; COVID showed that virtual fundraisers work, and he probably doesn’t need to barnstorm across states and hold multiple rallies in a single day. Nor does he need to reintroduce himself to the American people. His campaign can focus on his administration’s achievements through earned and paid media online and on TV.
Biden’s successful State of the Union address gave his team confidence that he still has a lot of fight left. His campaign won’t be built around big rallies. Expect smaller settings where he can interact with voters, both in person and digitally. Less traditional and less visible means less of a chance for any — excuse the ageism — “senior moments,” whether perceived or real. That’s the hope, at least.
Another hope: Biden’s Republican opponent. In the unlikely event that it is Haley, or if it is 44-year-old Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida, Biden’s age will be front and center. But if his opponent is a 76-year-old former president, then age may not be as much of an issue. Ironically, and unfortunately, the easiest way for Biden’s campaign to neutralize the age issue is for the Republican nominee to be Donald Trump.