Editorial: When is a president ‘too old’?

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President Joe Biden turned 80 on Nov. 20, and so far, he has given every indication he plans to run for reelection in 2024. If he were to win, his second term would conclude not long after his 86th birthday.

Too old?

One of Biden’s would-be opponents has previously said he thinks not. Former President Donald Trump, 76, who has announced he will run again, once declared, “I would never say anyone is too old,” adding at the time that Biden and other rival candidates were making him “look very young.”

America is being led by a president well into what most people would describe as old age. But as Trump pointed out, there’s old and then there’s “old.”
Most people associate “old” with changes that go beyond a few gray hairs. As people grow old, inevitably, the heart works harder, the skin feels different, sight and hearing weaken and energy declines. Yet we all know people who seem to defy old age, working effectively and energetically well into their 80s.

The Constitution requires presidents to be at least 35 years old, but it sets no upper limit, and clearly some octogenarians are more capable than others.

Without directly addressing Biden’s age, Vice Adm. Vivek Murthy, America’s surgeon general, acknowledged as much to the Tribune Editorial Board earlier this month. “There is such a wide range between your actual age and how you perform and function and show up in the world,” Murthy observed.

“Thanks in part to advances in medicine and a greater understanding about how to stay healthy through a combination of nutrition, physical activity, medical interventions and sleep and focus on mental health,” Murthy said, “we’re learning how people can be functional and contribute to society and enjoy their lives at ages that 30 or 40 years ago people would not have thought possible.”

Research supports Murthy’s perspective.

A recent survey of 2,000 Americans pinpointed the age at which people consider themselves old at a surprisingly low 57. The World Health Organization states that in most of the developed world, old age is considered to begin at a still-surprisingly low 60.

.Republican President Ronald Reagan, 73 at the time, gave a famous answer to the “too-old” question at a 1984 debate against Democratic nominee Walter Mondale, who was 56. “I will not make age an issue of this campaign,” Reagan said. “I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.” Even Mondale laughed.

Leading up to the midterm elections, most Democratic candidates carefully avoided stating that Biden is too old to run again, even if they were thinking it. The president has said he will discuss running for reelection with his family over the holidays and announce a decision early next year.

We believe Americans should take Murthy’s word for it: No age is automatically too old to serve. Still, voters must consider a candidate’s capabilities, especially if there were to be a national emergency.

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