Is Joe Biden ‘Too Old?’
Sure. But it's the wrong question. Here are some better ones.
You want to see a presidential candidate who was really too old? I give you Franklin D. Roosevelt, age 62 when this photo was taken with his new running mate, then-Senator Harry Truman, in August, 1944. A few months after this photo, FDR won a fourth term with well over 400 electoral votes. A few months after that, he was dead. (Getty Images.)
Let’s take ourselves back in time, through 80 years and 20 presidential-election cycles. Let’s imagine it’s mid-September, 1943, fourteen months before the 1944 presidential contest. That’s the same fourteen-month distance as separates us now from the 2024 race.
At that time 80 years ago: World War II is still raging across Europe and the Pacific. D-Day is nine months into the future; the battle of Iwo Jima is seventeen months away. The United States, a late entrant to the war, has well over 10 million people in uniform, from its population of less than 140 million. Its bloodiest battles and many of its 400,000 eventual WWII combat fatalities are still ahead. The Nazi death camps are running faster than ever. Adolf Hitler is still in control.
And a US presidential race is underway. Voters begin asking an obvious question: Is Franklin Roosevelt “too old” for the job?
This is not the only question about Roosevelt. He has already served an unprecedented three terms. Would it not be Caesar-like and un-democratic to give him a fourth? Yet the nearer the election comes, the more his age and health are concerns. For decades Roosevelt’s paralysis from polio has been concealed in photos and newsreel films. But nothing can conceal how frail and haggard he looks.
Roosevelt is 62 years old when photographed on the White House lawn with his new vice-presidential running mate, Harry Truman. That’s the same age Barack Obama is in 2023; Roosevelt looks decades older.
Was Franklin Roosevelt “too old” in 1944 to serve another term as president? Yes, obviously. Was he also “too sick”? God, yes. Through his years of paralysis he had become a master at radiating a jaunty, carefree, confident demeanor. By the campaign year of 1944 signs of his ill-health were beyond concealment.1
Yet Roosevelt won his party’s nomination more or less by acclamation—the real fight was over replacing Vice President Henry Wallace with then-Senator Harry Truman as the running mate—and held the presidency over Thomas Dewey with 432 electoral votes. His campaign claimed to have “answered questions” about his age and health with long open-car motorcades in major cities, including four hours in the drenching rain through four boroughs of New York. But the Democrats who nominated him and American voters who elected him all knew that he was “too old” and “too sick.” The point is: Those weren’t the only factors they bore in mind. Most of them felt, age and all, that he was the right person for the times.
Everybody is ‘too’ something: the reality of our flawed presidents.
Let’s get to the obvious disclaimers. No current US leader—not Joe Biden, not anyone—is another FDR.2 The world’s challenges are not yet another World War II. Today’s neo-fascists and neo-Nazis are not yet the original thing. Even Putin and his allies in Russia and beyond cannot yet compare to Hitler and his enforcers and enablers.
But the salience of the 1944 election, and the point of this detour into history, is that presidential elections have never turned on whether a candidate might be found wanting on a single, specific standard.
Was John Kennedy “too young” for the responsibilities he was about to face? Were Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan “too old” to be fully capable in their second terms? Was Jimmy Carter “too outside” to be effective with Congress and the bureaucracy? Was the first George Bush “too inside” to connect well with the public of his times? Was Barack Obama “too cold”? Was Bill Clinton “too hot”? Was Lyndon Johnson too fearful of permitting “another Munich” when making his decisions about Vietnam? Was the second George Bush too fearful of “another inconclusive Gulf War” when deciding to invade Iraq? Was Theodore Roosevelt too maniacally athletic? Was William Howard Taft too torpid and fat? Were some presidents too academic and scholarly? Others too ostentatiously ill-informed? Too fancy in their language? Too tongue-tied? Was Abraham Lincoln too clinically depressed for the strains of office? Andrew Jackson too cruel? Ulysses Grant too reliant on alcohol?
Yes to the first question, about Kennedy. Yes to the second, about Eisenhower and Reagan. Yes, with caveats and complications, to the entire list about all the rest of them, and other lists you could make. And we’re not even getting to Donald Trump.
Every president has been too something or other, defective in some way. Voters have made that specific failing one part of what they bear in mind. For most voters, there is no single absolute “too” test in choosing a president. For many voters, it’s a choice between the lesser of two evils.
Asking again: Is Joe Biden ‘too old’?
The “too” standard has been the premise of many recent pundit pieces saying that Biden should step down as “too old”, or that challengers in the party should ease or force him out. I’ll let you find those pieces on your own. I’ll just note that virtually all of these calls have come from people looking for angles in writing about the 2024 race. Virtually none3 have come from elected Democratic officials or Democratic candidates with direct personal stakes in the election’s outcomes. If they really thought Joe Biden and Kamala Harris were dragging them down, they would run against them — as Edward Kennedy did against Jimmy Carter in 1980, as Pat Buchanan did against George H.W. Bush in 1992.
What are the questions that do make sense about Joe Biden, about age, about generational shifts, and about press coverage? Here are six possibilities:
1) Is gerontocracy a problem?
Yes, indeed. I wrote about the problem early this year, and a year before that. It is most acute in life-tenure positions, and most destructive of all with the flagrantly unaccountable US Supreme Court.
It’s long past time to shift to fixed 18-year terms for Supreme Court appointees (as detailed here, by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences). And vote for a new generation in the Senate, in the House, and in local and state offices.
2) ‘What happens then?’ The problem with magical thinking.
People who argue that Joe Biden should “step down” or “step aside” usually avoid discussing what would happen next. It’s like saying “Saddam Hussein should be removed” without considering: OK, what happens then?
Suppose Biden steps aside, before the 2024 election. There are 50 prominent Democrats who think their turn is due, who are sure they could perform better in office.
Actually, there are 500 of these people.
The day after the 2024 election, however it turns out, all 50 of them—all 500—will launch their campaigns. They’ll argue that they are the right person for the job. And, crucially, that other people are the wrong choice.
These campaigns are necessary for the future of the party. But they are bruising and destructive while they’re underway. The Democratic party will—necessarily and usefully—face this fratricide the next time around. It’s the natural cycle. The party is avoiding this embittering warfare right now for one reason only: because it already has a president and vice president in place. If Biden stepped down or Harris (implausibly) stepped away, the warfare would start ten seconds after the press release, and with a campaign against (possibly) Donald Trump ahead.
If you have ever seen a primary fight you know the scars it leaves. The negative campaign arguments and ads last far longer than the positive ones. Virtually no elected Democrat has endorsed a primary challenge to Biden and Harris, because virtually all of them know the damage it would do.
Franklin Roosevelt, age 62 and in his last months of life, shortly after casting his vote in 1944. He was ‘too old’ and ‘too sick’ to be president. He was also the right choice. (Getty Images.)
3) The virtues of age: Misunderstanding the job of being president.
Joe Biden is a better president as an old man than he would have been as a young man.
Biden ran for president, and lost, in 1988 when he was 46, and in 2008, when he was 66. (And became Obama’s vice president.) He ran once more in 2020, when he was 78, and survived, thanks to the Democratic primary voters of South Carolina, and then won the nomination and the presidency.
Why is Biden better as an old president than he would have been as a young one? Because experience, or luck, or Providence, has equipped him for the two essential aspects of the job (which, inconveniently, don’t make for great breaking-news coverage).
One of those is judgment. Not the second-by-second go/no-go decisions in the Situation Room that are glamorized in news accounts or critiqued at press conferences. They are part of a president’s responsibilities, but not the major part. The real test of a president is the larger strategic decisions, the ones that are pondered-over: We should draw a line and pick this fight. We should do our best to avoid this other fight.
I contend that Biden’s judgment on all of the biggest questions has been good. That is, I agree with most of his calls. The real point is that his judgment is probably better than it would have been in his 40s.4 And he is less anxious about “proving himself.”
The other is choosing a team. Every president of the past century, before Joe Biden, has had numerous publicized scandals, staff resignations, back-biting, and other friction by this point in an administration. So far the only “scandal” involving Biden has concerned his son Hunter, who never held public office; and the main “criticism” from his own party has been whether Merrick Garland, his attorney general, has been too passive.
Choosing which fights to pick; knowing which people to trust: These are often the traits of older people, rather than younger ones. They’re strengths rather than weaknesses for Biden. Sidney Blumenthal has an extended argument about why Biden is the best choice for the Democrats—on the merits of his performance in office, and on the difficult realities of choosing anyone else.
4) The ‘too old’ meme brings out the very worst in the press.
The NYT’s latest big “Biden is too old” takeout based its headline and its lead anecdote on something anyone with international travel has experienced—bewilderment about what time it is, when you have arrived some place many time zones away. Apparently Biden, now age 80, asked “it’s evening here, right?” on arrival in Vietnam. In my 30s, 40s, 50s, and 60s I have asked questions like that when arriving in Australia, China, Singapore, or elsewhere in the region. You’re in a fog. You don’t know what day it is, let alone what hour. Then the Times went for its classic “raises questions” framing:
The president is also facing persistent questions about his age and effectiveness as a messenger for his own agenda — part of a broader conversation in Washington about leaders, some with health problems, who remain in office well into their 80s or 90s.
“Persistent questions.” “Broader conversation.” In related NYT stories, “Provides ammunition for” and “Will lead to criticism that..”
If you think he’s too old, say that. Don’t give us “persistent questions” or “broader conversation.” That is beneath any reporter’s dignity—and I say that as my own judgment, not as something I’m pretending gives rise to “persistent questions.”
5) The vice presidential question.
This brings us back to 1944. Franklin Roosevelt obviously was too old and too sick that year. But it was in everyone’s interest—that of the Allies, the Americans, the Democrats, probably even many of the Republicans—that he stay in office to try to see the war to its close.
And because he was so evidently sick, the fight among the Democrats was whether the very progressive Henry Wallace should remain as vice president, as opposed to Harry Truman.
You can imagine such a fight among Democrats now—about whether Kamala Harris, vice president for four years, should remain, or someone else. But asking or urging her to step aside? Think about this, as the column-writers appear not to have done, for even one minute. Joe Biden chose as his running mate the person who became the first woman and the first non-white vice president. The party is going to unseat her? Really? With whom? And through what process? With what resentments? And what results?
Again please note that not a single “Biden should step down” / “Harris is not the best” column has gotten into details about how this would happen. That’s because it would be a disaster.
Judge the policies and record of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris as you will. Recognize that Biden is the oldest person ever to hold this office. And that Donald Trump is the second-oldest. And that any candidate for this office will be imperfect, so that every choice is “compared to the alternatives.”
But don’t waste any more time telling me that Biden is “old.” Everybody knows that. Tell us things we don’t already know.
The National Park Service’s site for Roosevelt’s Hyde Park home is eloquent about his final year. For instance, its page on “The Dying President” describes a speech FDR gave in August, 1944. This was many months after his doctors had grown alarmed about his condition, and just weeks after he had secured the Democratic nomination for a fourth term:
The American public would get their first hint of FDR’s failing health during a radio broadcast that the President gave from the deck of a destroyer in the Bremerton, Washington Shipyard.
The President decided to stand up for his speech. He had not worn his leg braces for several months, and he had lost almost 20 pounds. His leg braces no longer fit properly and painfully dug into his flanks. There was a stiff breeze which caused the ship to rock, making it very difficult for FDR to hold on to the podium and his notes at the same time. It came off in a halting, rambling way as he talked about his recent travels to military bases around the pacific. Sam Rosenman (one of FDR’s speech writers) even said, “it looks like the old master has lost his touch.”
At about ten minutes into his talk, FDR began to have severe chest pain radiating into both shoulders. He somehow got through the speech.
A scratchy black-and-white video of FDR giving that speech is available on YouTube via the FDR Library, here.
An exception-illustrating-the-rule is Rep. Dean Phillips, a third-term Democrat from Minnesota, who said this summer that Biden shouldn’t run again. He’s not running against Biden himself.
Biden’s most controversial judgment call is of course the withdrawal from Afghanistan, as chronicled most recently by Franklin Foer. But I contend that even this call redounds to Biden’s credit. He had a view; he stuck with it; he adjusted as realities emerged. Certainly his judgment was steadier than those of most in the press, who instantly pronounced this the “defining event” of his presidency (it won’t be) and the axis of post-WW II US policy (it isn’t).