At a rally in Texas during the 2020 Democratic Presidential Primary, candidate Joe Biden attempted to quote the US Declaration of Independence. Needless to say, he sort of made a hash of it: “We hold these truths to be self-evident. All men and women created by the, go- you know the… you know the thing.”
At the time, some commentators saw this as a clear sign of a cognitive decline. It was part of a long series of political gaffes that occurred during the campaign. Still, it did not seem to affect his political ambitions. The next day Biden completed his astonishing comeback in the Democratic primary, winning ten of the fourteen states up for grabs on ‘Super Tuesday’, having performed very poorly in some of the earlier primary contests.
Concerns about cognitive ability were reinforced by Biden’s age during the campaign. Election as President made him 78 years and 61 days old on inauguration day: the oldest in American history. It was widely reported at the time that Biden would only seek a single term in office, his purpose being to beat Trump before handing over to a new generation of Democrats. Ultimately, that is not what happened. In a video released in April of this year, Biden announced that he would be seeking re-election as President. This would mean he could serve a second term entirely in his 80s, being 86 when he finally hands over to a successor.
President of the United States is one of the most difficult and demanding jobs in the world. The holder is responsible for the wellbeing of 336 million Americans, and Commander-in-Chief of the most powerful military in human history. The President, then, needs to be an effective decision maker with lots of mental stamina. Someone who is over fifteen years older than the average American retirement age may be at risk of lacking in either of these areas. According to the Simons Foundation, older people may be more likely to delegate, defer, or avoid making decisions. They could also be less likely to exhaustively search for information, and less able to recall its origin.
Members of the right of American politics often like to cite Donald Trump as a spring chicken compared to Biden. This itself is laughable: Trump is one of the few American politicians who seems less mentally capable than Biden. Analysis by Factba.se found that he speaks at the level of an 8-year-old: the lowest of any President since 1929. In 2024 America could be faced with two choices for President, both of whom may be experiencing cognitive decline. This is hardly a good choice for the supposed leader of the free world.
Despite importing many American concepts, Britain does not share this relationship with older politicians. The average age in the House of Commons has remained around 50 for decades. Similarly, frontline politics is not dominated by older leaders. A politician of comparable age to Biden is the Conservative veteran Kenneth Clarke, who was Father of the House until leaving politics in 2019, aged 79. Clarke’s last serious attempt to be Prime Minister was his run for the Tory leadership in 2005, aged 65. Further, his participation at a later age makes him an outlier in Britain. The average age of the post-Thatcher Prime Ministers upon them taking office is 49; Rishi Sunak is 38 years younger than Biden.
It is unclear why this difference exists. Perhaps the demands of Prime Minister’s Questions and the Liaison committee are simply untenable at an older age, in a way that the duties of the US President are not. Maybe the British public are inherently more suspicious of older leaders, or more inclined to be concerned by a lack of mental sharpness. Whatever the reason, Britain seems to be following a more desirable path.
None of this is to say that older people can’t become incredible leaders, and have a hugely positive impact on politics. Nelson Mandela was elected as South Africa’s first Black president at the age of 75. Jimmy Carter won the Nobel Peace Prize aged 78. Bernie Sanders continues to inspire generations of young people at age 81. Older generations can have an immense impact on the political landscape, and we are incredibly lucky to have them. It is simply the case that older leaders can also carry the risk of a cognitive decline, which could negatively impact their ability to serve. The aforementioned leaders were not affected by this problem, and were therefore able to serve effectively: the same might not be true for Biden.
Opponents may argue that disqualifying Biden in the absence of good alternatives would simply allow in the likes of 44-year-old Florida Republican Ron Desantis, who has the potential to damage the country fundamentally. Desantis’ reluctance to accept the result of the 2020 election result, and his lacklustre support for Ukraine in its war against Russia, are just the tip of the iceberg of threats that his policy platform could pose. So, of course, age shouldn’t be the only issue we look at in politics. We must analyse the viability of Biden’s candidacy holistically, looking at his mental fitness for four more years alongside his policy agenda and popularity.
But age needs to at least be given some thought when Americans pick the next President. Biden is the presumptive Democratic nominee by virtue of being the incumbent. Democrats would be wise to fully consider the consequences of a US President serving a full term as an octogenarian before they go full speed ahead with a rerun of 2020. Otherwise, they may find themselves in trouble, if Biden’s leadership ability is jeopardised by his advancing age. In an extremely unstable world, that is the last thing America needs.