As Democrats and Republicans begin campaigning for election season, we should set aside kneejerk reactions and take a rational look at the prospects for two elderly candidates.
On the one hand, Joe Biden has surpassed the expectations of many progressives in the UK and broken modestly but significantly from the neoliberal orthodoxy of his two Democratic predecessors, Barack Obama and Bill Clinton. On the other, the MAGA right remains a predominant force in American politics, borne out by the fact that despite numerous serious charges against him – including a judge in a civil court finding a rape accusation ‘substantially true’ – Donald Trump remains the runaway favourite to be the Republican candidate in 2024.
Currently facing four separate indictments, Trump is if anything gaining in popularity among the grassroots Republican Party. Despite riding a massive wave of hype from commentators and the media class in America, Florida governor Ron DeSantis is now polling well behind the former president in the Republican primaries. Originally hailed as the saviour of the Republican Party, DeSantis is being trounced by Trump, who is polling at an astonishing 55.2%, while according to this polling company DeSantis is recording a miserable 13.2%.
Trump’s ‘Teflon’ popularity in the modern American Conservative movement will be met by many progressives in the UK with alarm. For the Democrats, the 2024 election is a massive moment, arguably the most serious political contest for decades. Considering the modern-day right’s extraordinary political ideology, wedded as it is to conspiratorial isolationist magical thinking, the up-and-coming election is one Democrats absolutely must win for the good of their country and the wider world.
A matter of age
The Democrats’ unexpectedly good showing in last year’s mid-term elections may be a sign that Biden is better positioned to win in 2024 than many currently give him credit for. However, there is a bogeyman that haunts Joe Biden, and it’s not Hunter Biden’s laptop. The nagging criticism that won’t go away is that he’s simply too old.
There have been older presidents before. Ronald Reagan became America’s oldest president when he was first elected at the age of 69 in 1980. Trump then became America’s oldest president in 2016 aged 70. Biden was 78 when he became president, so if he is re-elected and serves a full second term he will be 86 when he leaves office in 2028.
Breathless media criticism and numerous polls have led to a stubborn focus on the age question. Given there’s a large number of Democratic voters who are increasingly saying Biden is too old to run again, it’s worth asking: will this damage Biden’s chances of getting re-elected?
Take a deep breath because what I’m going to say flies in the face of a lot of the swelling media feeling about Biden. Is he too old to run for a second term? No, not at all.
How old is too old?
To clarify, let’s just pause and think again about one of those earlier elderly presidents.
In the 1980s, many voters did believe that Reagan was too old to be president. In the run-up to the 1984 election, the media was rife with speculation that the president, who had recently survived an assassination attempt, had become too frail to run again. In a strange echo of the noise around Biden today, Reagan was said to be senile, ‘losing his marbles’, seemingly not compos mentis. The outcome? Reagan was elected in a historic landslide.
Another point – Biden is not that much older than many Americans in today’s population. The ‘silver tsunami’ has been a demographic change notable in America for years now. With developments in modern science, changes to diet and improvement in medicine, the proportion of Americans over the age of 65, has increased significantly since 2010. By 2040, the number over 85 will have quadrupled since the year 2000. In this context, Biden is not that different to a lot of voters.
The real question for 2024
In all, Biden and the Democrats are in a much better position than many people are currently saying. Yes, Biden’s approval rating isn’t great. But neither is Trump’s.
The next general election is over a year away, and that’s a long time for politics to change quite rapidly. It may be the case that if Trump does win the Republican nomination, Biden’s approval ratings improve as the alternative becomes clearer. The very real prospect of Trump – who is only three years younger than Biden – may yet mitigate the problem of Biden’s age.
Perhaps the question ‘Is Biden too old?’ is the wrong one. Maybe, like in 1984, many Americans do indeed think the president is too old and given a magic wand they would choose a younger candidate. But that’s quite a different question to, ‘Would you prefer the current, rather elderly and possibly a little senile, president to the alternative, age not withstanding?’
Time will of course tell. But it’s clear from a number of factors that the age question is not truly the deal-breaker that some on the right, and some on the left, believe it to be.