Biden just turned 81. The smartest arguments for why he is — and isn't — too old to be president

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“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.

What’s happening

Earlier this week, President Biden celebrated his 81st birthday — though “celebrated” is probably too strong a word for it.

“This is the 76th anniversary of this event,” Biden, the oldest commander in chief in U.S. history, joked Monday at the White House’s annual turkey-pardoning ceremony. “And I want you to know I wasn’t there at the first one.”

“By the way, it’s my birthday today,” he added. “It’s difficult turning 60.”

It’s no surprise the president underplayed Monday’s milestone while presenting the National Thanksgiving Turkey — or that he is choosing to officially mark it over the holiday break with a private family gathering in Nantucket, Mass., rather than a splashy public party in Washington, D.C.

Biden has been dogged by questions about his age ever since announcing his 2020 presidential run — questions that have only grown more pervasive and persistent as the years have thinned his hair, softened his speech and stiffened his step.

And now that Biden is asking for a second term, voters will have to decide if they think he’s up to the task of serving four more years.

The polls suggest maybe not. According to the latest Yahoo News/YouGov survey, nearly two-thirds of Americans (64%) — including 4 in 10 Democrats (39%) — now say they are “very” or “somewhat” concerned about the president’s “health and mental acuity,” up from 48% in June 2020. For the first time, a majority (54%) say that Biden no longer has “the competence to carry out the job of president.”

But is Biden really too old to serve? Or are there advantages to his age that some Americans are overlooking?

Why there’s debate

Before Biden, the oldest people to occupy the Oval Office were Ronald Reagan (nearly 78 on his last day as president), then Donald Trump (74 and a half), then Dwight D. Eisenhower (just over 70). No other president ever served past the age of 69. Biden would be 86 on Jan. 20, 2029. To a large degree, anxieties about his age reflect an understandable fear of the unknown.

Plenty of public figures have remained vigorous and effective well into their 80s. But does Biden belong in that elite crowd? And since elections are a choice, how does he compare, age-wise, to his likeliest Republican opponent, the 77-year-old Trump?

To counter concerns, Biden supporters often note that Trump, who also stumbles verbally, is only marginally younger — and that the Democrat’s busy schedule and list of achievements contradict the right-wing caricature of a doddering senior citizen.

“He has the ability to think through a major problem in a way that does reflect experience,” Franklin Foer, the author of The Last Politician: Inside Joe Biden’s White House and the Struggle for America’s Future, recently told the Free Press. “If you were to give him a mental acuity test of the likes that Nikki Haley has suggested ... I’d say he would pass it.”

What’s next

Presidential campaigns have a way of exposing weaknesses — or revealing unexpected strengths.

But even Democrats disagree over how Biden should approach 2024: by “getting out on the campaign trail more to show his vigor, deploy more humor to defuse the matter and even boast about his age rather than ignore it,” as the New York Times reported this week — or by being “protected even more, allowed more time to rest and not sent on so many draining international trips.”

For now — as shown by Biden’s turkey-pardoning quips, as well as other recent, humorous remarks — the plan seems to be more the former than the latter.

“I think everyone knows it’s an issue, and we have to address it,” Ron Klain, Biden’s former White House chief of staff, told Politico earlier this week. “He’ll keep on doing the job, campaigning with vigor and demonstrating to the American people his energy level, which is quite robust.”


Biden has become a better — not worse — leader with age

“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). ... 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.” — James Fallows, Breaking the News

Biden is up to the job of being president, but whether he’s up to the task of running for president is another matter

“He has negotiated with Congress [and] passed laws furthering the goals he campaigned on. ... On the biggest issue of the moment, the war between Israel and Hamas, Biden has maintained a position starkly at odds with his party’s staffer class. This fact alone dispels any doubt that Biden is in control of his own administration. [On the other hand,] Democrats ought to be deeply concerned about what kind of campaign Biden will wage, and perhaps they ought to be worried about how well he will hold up for four and a half more years of a strenuous job.” — Jonathan Chait, New York

The real worry isn’t that Biden might die in office it’s that he might decline

“From an actuarial perspective, the life expectancy of somebody who has reached Biden’s age is 89 years old, meaning that the odds are in favor of his surviving a second term. However, the issue of concern is not merely one of whether he can literally make it past the finish line. Winston Churchill lived to be 90, but a severe stroke at 79 while he was prime minister left the British government effectively without a leader for months. ... The worrisome thought is that there are a lot of intermediate steps, short of death or unconsciousness, by which an elderly person can decline.” — Editors, National Review

Even if Biden remains sharp well into a second term, it will be hard to remain effective

“Even the most loyal aides tend to drift away in a president’s second term. ... It would be particularly hard for a president in his mid-eighties to forge new relationships of trust. ... Biden will [also] be dealing with a Capitol Hill that he barely recognizes.” — Walter Shapiro, New Republic

Biden’s public performance doesn’t inspire

“[Biden] doesn’t look and speak the part. He’s not a commanding or charming presence on a presidential or presidential election stage. I think a lot of voters, and young people in particular, who are not at all put off by his political positions or accomplishments, are put off by his utter failure as a regal persona. And I don’t know how that can be fixed. Not by bicycling.” — John B. Judis, longtime political analyst, to New York Times

But is Trump really any better, age-wise?

“[The age] question is used as a cudgel by the right despite the fact that their preferred guy ... is also an elderly man, just three years Biden’s junior, and demonstrates even more worrying signs of both cognitive and physical decline, as well as narcissism, grandiosity and dishonesty. ... In a contest between these two old men of almost the same old age, where one is tired and imperfect and the other unhinged and malignant, Biden’s slight seniority is only an issue because there’s so little else to raise.” — Jill Filipovic, the Guardian