If a reminder was necessary as to the potential stakes in 2024’s election, former president Donald Trump’s performance at a CNN town hall with New Hampshire voters on May 10 provided it. The Republican front-runner remains as committed to his lies about the 2020 election, as extreme in his approach to major issues — for example, encouraging GOP members of Congress to hold the debt limit hostage for “massive cuts” — and as belligerent as ever. Mr. Trump’s nomination is not yet ensured, but his words foreshadowed the chaos that a second Trump administration might bring.
Therefore, the event provided a fresh reason to focus on President Biden’s bid for reelection, which appears to be unopposed except by two long shots within the Democratic Party. The strong likelihood of Mr. Biden’s nomination, in turn, raises his greatest vulnerability in a general election: his age. In seeking another four-year term so late in life, Mr. Biden, who would be 82 on Nov. 20, 2024, is asking voters to do something unprecedented. And they seem to have reservations about it. Seventy percent of U.S. adults do not believe Mr. Biden should run again, and 69 percent cite his age as either a “major” or “minor” reason, according to a recent NBC News survey.
What is the right way to think about this unique situation? First, voters need to maintain a sense of perspective. “Don’t compare me to the Almighty. Compare me to the alternative,” the president likes to say. He has a point, particularly if the alternative to four more years of Mr. Biden is four more years of Mr. Trump — who would himself be 78 on Election Day next year.
Nevertheless, there is a rational basis to concerns about Mr. Biden’s age. His frequent verbal lapses do not help assuage them. There is no public evidence these moments reflect anything other than the forgetfulness and difficulty at multitasking that often occurs among generally healthy seniors, according to the National Institute on Aging. In a way, though, that’s just the point. They’re normal. Voters can expect more of the same in a second term.
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Mr. Biden’s physicians have declared him, credibly, in good physical and mental shape relative to his years. Yet Social Security Administration actuarial data indicates the average person his age can expect to live an additional 8.5 years. This points to another reality: the risk, in a second term, of serious health challenges or even invocation of the 25th Amendment, which deals with presidential disability.
History provides at least one counterexample: Konrad Adenauer was 87 when he stepped down after 14 years as chancellor of West Germany, having started in 1949 at the age of 73. Still, the median age of world leaders is 62, according to the Pew Research Center. And the U.S. presidency, with its enormous international responsibilities, is an especially demanding office. Nor is the presidency comparable with service in Congress (median age: 57.9 years for the House; 65.3 years for the Senate), where an aged member’s death or disability could force a single state or district into a possibly disruptive transition — but not a whole branch of government.
In short, Mr. Biden’s age is not inevitably the decisive issue, but it is a real one, and he will have to address it, forthrightly, whether the choice in 2024 is between him and Mr. Trump or another Republican. The public has a right to know details about his health, physical and mental, and about what he is doing to maintain it. The president also has an obligation to interact with the public, especially with reporters, regularly, and in settings that are not tightly controlled by the White House staff.
The good news is that, after a long period of shunning the media, Mr. Biden has fielded questions on several occasions, including an April 26 joint news conference with the South Korean president. In that encounter, he acknowledged that voters are evaluating this historically unparalleled aspect of his candidacy: “I respect them taking a hard look at it. I’d take a hard look at it as well,” he said. That was the right attitude. By acting on it, Mr. Biden could reassure voters and shift the campaign to the contrast between his record and the GOP brand: Trump-style right-wing populism.
To be sure, Mr. Trump and Mr. Biden are well-known figures about whom voters have already formed strong opinions. In a rematch between them, the age issue might change the votes of only a relative handful of people. Indeed, advanced age is a question mark for Mr. Trump, too, though one that’s overshadowed by his defects of character, temperament and extremism.
In an ideal world, the U.S. political system would enable a generational update among our presidential candidates. In the real world, it looks as if voters in 2024 will have to weigh Mr. Biden’s advanced age more or less as he proposes — not compared with the alternatives they wish they had but compared with the ones they do.