In a presidential field where three leading candidates—including the incumbent, Donald Trump—would become the oldest president in United States history if they won, Joe Biden is the oldest of all. As the former vice president goes around telling people to “go to Joe 30330” or launches into a free-associative ramble in response to a question about racial justice, political observers are arguing about whether, at age 76, Biden is limited by the effects of his age—and also about whether it’s fair to argue about it.
“We’ve had three baby boomer presidents, and not much good has happened in any of their presidencies,” Mickey, a Democrat from Phoenix, told me over the phone. “It’s time for the baby boomers to get off the stage and maybe let the next generation start to run things.”
Mickey didn’t mean his own cohort should take over—he’s 72. With Biden, Trump, and Bernie Sanders all pushing back the outer limits of candidate age, and Elizabeth Warren not far behind them, I set out to ask people who have personally experienced the aging process what they thought about Biden, aging, and the presidency. I found some through Twitter and some hanging around tourist hotspots in D.C. All in all, I talked to more than a dozen Americans over 60, some of whom preferred to omit their last names while speaking frankly about politics.
Mickey was far from the only one to raise concerns about someone his age running the country.
“I’d rather see someone younger than Biden, like someone [Pete] Buttigieg’s age,” said Judy, a 76-year-old from Massachusetts, referring to the youngest candidate in the race, age 37. “I think their recall, their endurance, everything is much better. I’m in my 70s, so I can identify.”
Irene Duncan, a 68-year-old Nebraskan, has been turned off by “the multitude of Biden’s inaccurate comments,” which she partly attributes to his age. “The situation that we’re in right now in the United States—the stress level, the instant decisions that have to be made, dealing with so many different personalities—I think it’s gonna take someone with a lot more stamina, I’ll put it that way,” she told me. Duncan said she sees more of that necessary vigor in Sanders, who seems more “passionate about his beliefs.”
Sanders would be 79 on his first day in the White House. Though all three Democratic front-runners are over 70, Biden, who’d be 78 on Inauguration Day, has borne the brunt of his opponents’ digs about electing an aged leader. Reps. Eric Swalwell and Tim Ryan—one of whom has already dropped out of the race and the other of whom should do so immediately—have said, respectively, that Biden should “pass the torch” and is mentally “declining.” At the last debate, Julián Castro accused Biden of “forgetting” what he’d said just a couple of minutes earlier. In a post-debate interview, Sen. Cory Booker mocked Biden’s reference to a “record player” in one of the former vice president’s most baffling rants of the evening.
Castro paid for his dig: Viewers gave him the worst debate score of any candidate onstage last week. A couple of people I spoke to found Castro’s line of questioning, and the question of Biden’s age in general, offensive to senior voters. “Older people have wisdom, and if [Biden] gets a few things wrong—well, if we talked all the time, we would too,” said Patsy Trigg, a 76-year-old from Diamond, Missouri, who plans to vote for Biden in the primary.
“I wonder how the Castro family elders are feeling about Julián’s approach,” Terry Brasky, a 72-year-old from upstate New York, wrote to me in an email. She called Castro’s comment a “cheap shot,” especially considering that Biden appears “strong and sharp.”
But most people I met considered age and mental acuity a valid vein of critique in a presidential race. Watching Castro’s “forgetting” moment in the debate, “I went, ‘Dang, dude, where you going with that now?’ ” said Patricia Plummer, a 65-year-old who lives in Arlington, Texas. “But when you get into politics, you have to remember, everything is on the table except for family.” Plummer thinks Biden “needs to go home and just rest and do something else” but thinks he’d do fine with support—especially from his wife, whom Plummer would choose over Biden as president—if he got into office.
Jimmy Carter joked on Tuesday that there should be an age limit on the presidency; at 95, he said, he doubts he could have adequately performed the duties of the president even 15 years ago. Like Carter, the people who told me they questioned Biden’s faculties seemed to glean supporting evidence from their own lives. Mickey noted that at 72, he usually golfs every other day, but if he golfs three days in a row, he’s tired out by day three. “Part of Donald Trump’s issues is he’s older: He gets very frustrated, he gets angry, he yells a lot,” Mickey said. “It sounds very stereotypical, but I see that in some of my friends and acquaintances.”
The people who think Biden is doing just fine at 76 used themselves and their friends as benchmarks, too. Lynn, a 71-year-old from Kansas, said she personally lacks “the mental capacity” to serve as president, but bristles at the idea that ability has anything to do with age. “I know people in their 60s, 50s even, who aren’t competent enough, and yet I know people who skydive in their 80s,” she said.
One couple from Culver City, California, was more bothered by the fact that the Democratic candidates were insulting each other than by any possible ageism at play. “Bernie seems 90,” said 61-year-old Barbara Joyner, who likes Amy Klobuchar. Barbara doesn’t think Biden’s too old to be president, but her husband, 63-year-old Dale Joyner, does; he said Biden has “kind of lost his connection to reality” and has been answering debate questions so strangely that “you have to question his—not his dementia level, but his cognitive abilities.” Even so, Dale would rather the Democrats save their barbs for Trump. Of Biden’s allegedly waning abilities, Dale said, “We can see that. Do the others actually have to verbally say it?”
But other senior citizens from across the political spectrum pointed out that Biden has been saying weird things for decades. They say lower-polling candidates are only giving him guff for his age because he’s the front-runner, and that Castro knows he’ll get more press for insulting Biden’s age than for simply dragging his health care plan.
Two of the Trump-supporting conservatives I spoke to said that news outlets are biased toward Democrats, so when even the liberal media is reporting on Biden’s faux pas and fumbles, they have to believe it. (Team Biden, for its part, says the media is biased against him.) One of the Trump supporters, a 70-year-old from Kansas named Mike, told me that, though he doesn’t like Biden, competence should be measured by the “overall condition” of the candidate, not just age. “I remember when Kennedy was in office, he had a sense of leadership, even at 34,” Mike said. “Biden doesn’t give off that same nobility, if you will. His peculiarities are not new.”
As for Trump, Mike said, “He’s in as good a shape as he was when he was voted in.”
Another Republican, 66-year-old Ted from Michigan, said that although age-related criticism is “as old as time” in electoral politics, it doesn’t ever seem to make a difference to voters. “They said the same thing about Reagan,” Ted said.
It wasn’t always clear, in my conversations, whether the people who invoked Reagan—the current old-president record-holder, who was 73 at the start of his second term—were cautioning against electing someone too old or offering him as an example of a septuagenarian who did a great job. Rosemary Harden, a 75-year-old Warren supporter from Fort Worth, Texas, left no room for misinterpretation. “We already elected a man who was senile,” she said.
Harden and Plummer, whom I found sitting together on a bench near the Lincoln Memorial, agreed that the bigger problem with Biden’s age isn’t his competence or energy but his political outlook. “It’s time for some new generation stuff,” Plummer said, name-checking “the Squad.” “I’m not playing the race card, but I’ve got to say what I see: All them old white men, half of them don’t want to use a computer—they’re stuck in stupid. What you did back in the day only worked for back in the day.” She said she looks at some of these older career politicians, even Democrats, and sees people who want to keep things running the old way, even when the old way wasn’t so great to begin with. “Please believe me, it was not,” Harden said, shaking her head.
This was the most common variety of age-related Biden skepticism 60-and-over Democrats raised to me: the belief that a president who is 82 years old, as Biden would be at the end of his first term, isn’t best equipped to lead with the kinds of new ideas and solutions the country needs. Several people mentioned their kids or grandkids and worried that an old candidate, or a candidate with old-school sensibilities, wouldn’t be able to excite the younger voters who make up the party’s future base.
“I think you reach a point where the ideas you grew up with and the things you thought were important are no longer as relevant as they were 20 years ago,” Mickey said. “My generation is very narcissistic, very ‘It’s about me.’ Do you want to give four more years to somebody from my generation?”