Joe Biden is old. The former vice president and current Democratic frontrunner would be 78 by the time he assumed office if elected next fall, making him the oldest first-term president ever by a remarkable eight years. (President Trump currently holds that title, having been sworn in at 70, one year older than former President Ronald Reagan was when he took office and 15 years past the median inaugural age of 55.) Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), presently Biden's most popular challenger, is even older. He'd be 79 in January of 2021.
We all know these people are old. Surely, they know we know they're old. So why not own it?
"I think [voters are] gonna judge me on my vitality," Biden said on CBS last year. "Can I still run up the steps of Air Force Two? Am I still in good shape? Do I have all my faculties? Am I energetic? I think it's totally legitimate people ask those questions." Sanders likewise conceded to Politico that his age is "part of a discussion, but it has to be part of an overall view of what somebody is and what somebody has accomplished," as well as "the overall health and wellbeing of the individual."
Superficially those statements seem similar, but consider them — and each man's public handling of his age — more closely and a gap appears. Sanders acknowledged his age and health but quickly pivoted to accomplishments and character. Though his remarks to Politico were too brief to be the final word on this issue, they are basically an honest and reasonable approach. There's no denial of the reality we can all see, and there's a more substantive engagement with the advantages of age, a difficult topic to broach in our youth-obsessed culture.
Sanders' comment opens the door to the talk we should be having about age and the presidency, which is a frank evaluation of its merits and risks alike.
On the plus side, an older candidate has likely been longer in the public eye. We have much more data for evaluating Sanders than, say, 37-year-old South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg. That's no slam on Buttigieg; it's just the truth. With advanced age we also get a more permanent development of a politician's character and worldview. Conversions are relatively unlikely for those in their 40s, but by 70 they are vanishingly rare. Trump, for instance, very clearly is who he is. And age can bring wisdom, too, though it's not guaranteed. Trump, again, is who he is.
But the liability in electing a septuagenarian is real. Mental decline, to say nothing of cultural disconnect, is more than possible. Even in good health, a 76-year-old will not have the physical stamina of a 37-year-old. Personally, that strikes me as a good thing: I am always all for the president doing less. Still, we can imagine emergency situations in which voters might prefer more vitality.
The right response to that worry is an open discussion of what practical measures an old president's White House would put in place to ensure the duties of the office are fulfilled. The wrong response is what Biden has done.
Let's go back to what he said on CBS: "Can I still run up the steps of Air Force Two? Am I still in good shape? Do I have all my faculties? Am I energetic?" For the most part, these are indeed legitimate questions, but a 76-year-old like Biden need not answer them all with a resounding yes. He could answer "no" to the steps, "not like I used to be" to being in good shape, "with a good night's sleep" to having his faculties, and "when necessary" to being energetic. And that would be entirely okay, because he's old, and the attraction of an old candidate is not physical vigor.
This is not what Biden has done. He has instead created a bizarre simulacrum of endless — well, not youth, but certainly a long gone upper middle age. The combined effect of the tan, the teeth, the hair, and maybe Botox and fillers, if not a facelift, is on the verge of unsettling. We all know Biden is old, but he seems determined to avoid reminding us. Rather than admitting his vitality is, quite naturally, on the wane, Biden is trying to prove he can keep up with rivals young enough to be his children or even grandchildren.
This week, however, The Hill reports Biden allies "have been floating the idea of altering the former vice president's schedule in an effort to reduce the gaffes he has made," because their candidate tends "to make the blunders late in the day" when he is tired. This is a good idea, and one Biden should embrace openly. Admit he needs to relax in the evening. Acknowledge that most 76-year-olds are having dinner at 5 p.m., not rolling into their third campaign stop in eight hours. Use the schedule change to talk about what voters can realistically expect if they choose the oldest president in U.S. history. Running against the perpetually sleep deprived Trump, maybe use it to talk about how a good sleep schedule helps avoid the mental decline old age can bring.
For candidates nearing 80, the best way to convince voters they're not too old is to own their oldness.