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Is Biden too old to run again?

Episode Summary

When Joe Biden won in 2020, he became the oldest president in U.S. history. If he runs again in 2024 and wins, he'll beat own record. Is that a problem?

Episode Notes

When Joe Biden won in 2020, he became the oldest president in U.S. history. If he runs again in 2024 and wins, he’ll beat own record. Is that a problem?

Today, we talk about the grumbles from Republicans and Democrats alike over Biden’s age. Read the full transcript here.

Host: Gustavo Arellano

Guests: L.A. Times reporter Courtney Subramanian

More reading:

Column: Are Joe Biden and Dianne Feinstein too old to do their jobs?

Newsletter: Joe Biden, the bumbling old president who outwitted Republicans

‘What an old politician understands’ — Biden turns the age issue to advantage

Episode Transcription

Gustavo Arellano: It’s widely assumed that in next year’s presidential election, Joe Biden’s name will be on the ballot. But he’s in no rush to make a formal announcement. 

Biden clip: I plan on running now, but we’re not prepared to announce it yet.

Arellano: As the incumbent, history says that his odds for a second term are pretty good, but one thing that’s working against him? His age.

Biden clip: They’ve been saying this about my age since I began to run, so, you know …

Arellano: If Biden were to win in 2024, he'd be 82 years old at his second inauguration, breaking his own record as the oldest president ever.

Press secretary: The president always says this, which is watch him and if you watch him, you'll see that he has a grueling schedule that he keeps up with, that sometimes some of us are not able to keep up with.

Arellano: Republicans say Biden’s too old to be president. But they’re not alone. As the race for 2024 starts to heat up, even some Democrats are questioning the president’s age.

Arellano: I'm Gustavo Arellano, you're listening to The Times Essential News from the L.A. Times. It's Wednesday, April 19, 2023.

Arellano: Today, how Biden's age may impact the 2024 election and how our views of aging have changed since George Washington left the presidency at the whipper-snapper age of 65.

Arellano: Here to discuss the age-old question of, well, an old president is L.A. Times White House reporter Courtney Subramanian.

Arellano: Courtney, welcome to The Times.

Courtney Subramanian: Thanks for having me.

Arellano: OK, so at this point, it’s basically a given that President Biden is going to run for reelection. We just don’t know when an official announcement will come. But we are getting a bit more clarity on how people are going to react to the news, so to what extent will Biden’s age be an issue for voters? 

Subramanian: Well, you know, I think it's important to point out that Biden really hasn't been able to escape the question of his age.

News clip: The top story in today's New York Times says Democrats sour on Biden citing age …

Subramanian: For Democrats in particular, it's not a matter of his performance. It's a matter of can he serve out the next term?

News clip: Is President Biden too old to run in 2020?  

Subramanian: Polling has consistently, sort of, reflected that, right? 

News clip: I am concerned about his health. I'm concerned about his stamina to be able to go the long haul. 

Subramanian: So the latest poll from ABC News and the Washington Posts released in February found that nearly six in 10 Democrats or Democratic aligned adults don't want to see Biden renominated.

News clip:  If he served out a second term, he would be 86 years old. Um, I'm not sure if any of us know of any 86 year olds who should be running the entire country. 

Subramanian: But many of them would still cast a ballot for Biden against a Republican like former President Donald Trump or Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who are the two leading candidates for the Republican Party at this point.

Arellano: Do we know how Biden feels about people who say he's too old to run again?

Subramanian: Well, he's vented a lot privately and publicly about this. 

News clip (Biden): I think it's a legitimate thing to be concerned about anyone's age, including mine. I think that's totally legitimate, but I think the best way to make the judgment is to, uh, watch me. 

Subramanian: And his aides really bristle at the idea that this is something that plays a big role in conversations. 

News clip (White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre): It's surprising that we get this question when you look at this record of this president and what he has been able to do and deliver for the American people.

Subramanian: But you know, in my own reporting, it has consistently come up when I'm talking to allies, when I'm talking to Democrats, when I’m talking to voters.

Subramanian: But I think it also really gets at the heart of what Biden hates the most, which is people who doubt him. 

News clip (Biden): Do you know any polling that's accurate these days? Y'all told me that there's no way we were gonna do well in this election. I told you from the beginning we were gonna do well. Y'all told me I couldn't win the general election; we did well.

Subramanian: That has certainly played a central role, has been a central theme in a lot of his decision-making and something that he brings up a lot publicly. He loves to prove people wrong, so if someone tells him he can't do something, he's gonna lean into it more, and I think that certainly is the case when it comes  to his decision to run for reelection.

Arellano: Yeah, the weird thing I guess to me is that concerns about Biden’s age aren’t new at all. It was a major factor in 2020, and I remember he  tried to address it back then when he ran on a promise to be a bridge for the next generation, which for a lot of people meant, “I'm from an older generation and I want to help the next generation come up to where I'm at.” 

He even picked a vice presidential candidate, Kamala Harris, who is way younger than him. So a lot of people, when he said that, they took that move as meaning he would be that bridge, he would serve that one term and then he would make way for Harris. Yet he’s basically saying he’s gonna run again. So what’s changed?

Subramanian: Yeah, I remember that as well. And I think it was something that definitely floated.  But they realized what that implied – that could make him a lame duck president. You know, his advisors really tamped down on the idea. And I think that Democrats didn't really think about a long-term plan or a roadmap to who comes after Biden other than Kamala Harris.

Subramanian: It seems like a good candidate for that role, but part of that is Harris has struggled to gain traction, and part of it was that the 2020 strategy was more focused on defeating Donald Trump and moving past the Make America Great Again movement, not what does this mean for the future of our party?

Arellano: So having a younger vice president in Kamala Harris, has that eased up voters’ fears about how supposedly old Biden is?

Subramanian: Unfortunately not. She has really struggled with voters, and even some in her own party believe that her performance has been uneven. Her approval rating has hovered consistently in the high 30s. And questions around Biden's age have only exacerbated those criticisms since she is and will be one heartbeat away from the presidency.

Subramanian: Republicans have seized on her unpopularity, and they try to highlight to voters that she could ultimately become president by proxy. But, you know, you speak to her allies, and they say a lot of this criticism is sexist and racist and comes with the territory of breaking glass ceilings.

Subramanian: The second gentleman, who I interviewed recently, told me that she said to him before, you know, when you break glass ceilings, sometimes you get cut. And, you know, I think it's important to point out that the role of vice president is never an easy one.

Subramanian: You can't outshine the boss. That's something Biden knows well. When he served as Barack Obama's vice president  and during their reelection campaign, for 2012,  there was a point where Obama ordered up polling to see if they would do better if Biden was replaced on the ticket by Hillary Clinton.

Subramanian: And aides later said they were never serious about it. But I just think it underscores historically how hard it is to be No. 2.

Arellano: So if people are asking questions about how old Biden is, and Kamala Harris isn't particularly popular, what might Biden be able to do on the campaign trail to make voters less concerned about whatever age he may be?

Subramanian: They've been doing this for a few months, and I think that is focusing on his record and how much he's accomplished in the first two years, which for any president is actually a lot.

Biden clip: Good afternoon. It's a good day today.

Subramanian: He's passed a lot of sweeping economic legislation. the American Rescue Plan or the Covid Relief Package, as it's known,

Biden clip: This nation has suffered too much for much too long,

Subramanian: The infrastructure law, which is something that both parties been trying to do for years.

Biden clip: The bill I'm about to sign into law is proof that despite the cynics, Democrats and Republicans can come together and deliver results.

Subramanian: And his signature climate and social spending package, the Inflation Reduction Act,

Biden clip: This bill will reduce inflationary pressures on the economy.

Subramanian: The first major gun safety reform in three decades.

Biden clip: Today. We say more than enough.

Subramanian: So the team is getting him out there, which is what he says he enjoys the most. They're putting him in battleground states to talk about his record and work the rope lines, and they're doing it on the world stage too.

Associated Press clip: The president’s in Ukraine.

Subramanian: He took this clandestine flight to Poland and a 10-hour overnight train ride into Ukraine and popped up in Kyiv, you know, in the middle of a war zone, walking side by side with President Zelensky

AP clip: It's a gesture of solidarity that comes days before the one-year anniversary of Russia's invasion of the country.

Subramanian: And then came back to Warsaw, where the rest of the press corps I was with  were waiting

Biden clip: Hello, Poland! 

Subramanian: And did a major speech and two days of meetings.

Biden: One year ago, the world was bracing for the fall of Kyiv. Well, I’ve just come from a visit to Kyiv, and I can report Kyiv stands strong.

Subramanian: It was really an exhaustive schedule and his aids pointed to his ability to do all of that as evidence that he's up for a second term. So I think you'll see more of that. You'll see more of him out across the country. In his trademark aviator sunglasses. 

Subramanian: And this is all just to show this is a president who has a stamina for another.

Arellano: After the break, how both parties are thinking about age as more Americans get older. 

Arellano: Courtney, while there's been a lot of slams about Biden's age from the right, you kind of mentioned it earlier and – let's be honest – a bunch of young progressives say the same things. “Oh, Biden's old. Get someone young in there, AOC in a couple of years.”

But if this bothers those voters so much, if what, I think you said six and 10 Democrats are concerned about the age of Biden, why haven't more candidates signed up to run against Biden in this coming primary?

Subramanian: There’s a sense that no one really wants to rock the boat. At this moment, the Democratic Party is pretty united compared with Republicans where there's a growing rift between more traditional conservatives and Trump's MAGA wing of the party.

Subramanian: And then there's the question of who's the person to fill the void. One of the main problems is there's no clear answer. As to who comes next,  when it comes to the Democratic nominee and with the potential of Trump returning the guy who beat him four years ago isn't looking half bad.

Subramanian: And that's what the Biden campaign is betting on. And I would also note while there's a lot of unease, challengers from the same party to a sitting president have historically never won. I think it's important to look to history in this moment and primary challengers have ended up mortally wounding the incumbent. If you look at Ted Kennedy, when he ran against Jimmy Carter, who would go on to lose to Ronald Reagan or Pat Buchanan ran against George  H.W. Bush, and that exposed a lot of ideological rifts in the party and Bush ultimately lost to Bill Clinton.

Arellano: Yeah. Or Gene McCarthy running against Hubert H. Humphrey, who of course wasn't the incumbent, but he was the chosen one of  Lyndon Johnson who was not gonna run. So that's really interesting. And you mentioned the Republican primary. Yeah. There's a lot of people already filing, but does the age question for them become a different equation in the general election, depending on how their primary plays out?

Subramanian: Well, right now the leading Republican presidential contender is Donald Trump, who is no spring chicken. You know, if he wins the nomination, he will be 78. And that's not much younger than Biden. I think if he goes on to win the nomination, age won't likely be the main concern of the general election.

Subramanian: Even if you look at what’s transpired over the last few weeks, there are all these investigations looking into Donald Trump’s behavior in the runup to and just after the 2020 election. Those are still working their way through the judicial system now, and Trump is facing one criminal indictment already.

So, it’s really unlikely that 7 million plus voters who gave Biden his very comfortable margin over Trump in the last election would change their minds in a possible rematch in 2024. 

But if a younger  GOP candidate wins the nomination – say, Nikki Hailey, who  already declared she's running, or Ron DeSantis, who has not declared that he's running but is considered one of the primary contenders – that's a different story. I think they will make it a point to run against Biden's age, which is why you're seeing already Biden cast the Republican Party as this party of Trump.

If it's not going to be a 2020 rematch between him and Trump, then he needs to make this election about what Trump represents, which is why you are consistently hearing him refer to Republicans wholesale as MAGA Republicans and saying things like this is not your father's Republican Party.

Arellano: It's ironic to me that the Republicans make so much hay, so to speak, about Biden's age, because before Biden ran and won, the two oldest presidents were Republicans and within our lifetimes – Donald Trump and Ronald Reagan.

So how did the GOP justify their age when they were in the pre.

Subramanian: Well,when we're talking about Ronald Reagan, it was no secret that there were concerns about his age. 

Clip from 1984 presidential debate: Good evening from the Kentucky Center for the Arts in Louisville, Kentucky. I'm Dorothy Ridings, president of the League of Women Voters, the sponsor of tonight's first presidential debate between Republican Ronald Reagan and Democrat Walter Mondale.

Subramanian: Even in the reelection during a debate in 1984, he seemed a little bit fuzzy on facts.

Ronald Reagan clip: We have our military. The morale is high. The, I think the people should understand the two-thirds of the defense budget pays for pay and salary are pay and pension. 

Subramanian: And struggled when he was trying to recall military uniforms using the word wardrobe instead, which sort of prompted a lot of these questions about “OK,, you know, should we be concerned about his age?”

Reagan clip: Mr. Truit, your question to President Reagan, Mr. President, I want to raise an issue that I think has been lurking out there for two or three weeks. You already are the oldest president in history, and some of your staff say you were tired after your most recent encounter with Mr. Mondale. I recall yet that President Kennedy days on end with no sleep during the Cuban Missile Crisis had to go for days on end with very little sleep. Is there any doubt in your mind that you’d be able to function in such circumstances?

Subramanian: And he leaned into it with some humor. During another 1984 televised debate, he was asked the question about his age and he deflected by saying,

Reagan clip:  Not at all, Mr. Truit, and I want you to know that also I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit for political purposes my opponents’ youth and inexperience.

Subramanian: It just turned the tables right, and that worked to his advantage. And Biden has tried to do the same. He's tried to inject some of that humor  and when it's come up, when we've asked him about it, he says things like, look at, you know, and, points to himself. But the caveat here, of course, is Reagan was younger than Biden when he ran for a second. He was just 77   by the end of his presidency. And Trump as well is younger than Biden. So, we keep pushing this notion of what's too old.

Arellano: It's interesting, all this talk of how old Biden is, how old Trump is, and even Reagan,  and all this stuff, because it seems relatively recent. So I'm wondering how voters have historically thought about age under presidency and whether that's changed over times, like the benchmark of what's old. I mean, a hundred years ago, or say 150 years ago, life expectancy was obviously shorter, and I remember, you know, going back to my history books, what was it? William Henry Harrison was considered super old, “Tippecanoe and Tyler too.” And he was all of like 65 or something. So would voters in the past have had similar concerns about how old a president was?

Subramanian: Well, I think you bring up a good point, which is the cause of death when you're 80 today is not, is probably not the same cause of death when you were 50 in 1800. And people are living longer and better now. Past presidents have died from postsurgical infections. You know, Biden is taking medication that keeps his heart healthy, right?

These are medications that previous presidents didn't have, and I think the reason that we're faced with this issue of what to do with older leaders is that the actuarial tables have changed  from most of American history. Biden is the first octogenarian in the Oval Office, and we've only had three others before him that were in their 70s while they were in the White House. And that's Eisenhower, who turned 70 just before his term ended in January 1961; Reagan was 77, as we mentioned, and Trump, had been the oldest president on inauguration day. And so, you know, as you said, I think that underscores what is too old. The average age of a president at inauguration is actually 55. For so long I think voters  were framing the question “Are they old enough?” Right. So if we look at John F. Kennedy, he was 43. Bill Clinton was 46, and Barack Obama was 47. The idea was: Did they have the age and the experience, and with these last two presidents, it's a whole different ballgame.

Arellano: Coming up after the break, is it ageist to talk about Biden's age?

Arellano: Courtney, you mentioned earlier that voters are pretty concerned about President Biden's age, but are those fears founded? Just how healthy is Biden?

Subramanian: Well, he did have his annual checkup in mid-February. This is something we had been asking about for months. He did part of it last year and then completed it in mid-February, but his doctor said he is in great condition and has seen no severe decline since he became president. He noted that Biden continues to have a stiffness in his gait, which is a combination of arthritis in his back, neuropathy in his feet, and long-term effects of breaking his foot in 2020 when he was playing with his dog Major, but previous physicals and assessments by outside experts say that he has no physical or mental competence issues at all. 

And while there's the risk of life-threatening diseases, dementia and death, those all rise faster with each passing decade of a person's life. Experts in geriatrics say that people in their 80s who are active and engaged and have a sense of purpose can really remain productive and healthy. And you know, this president has a lot going in his favor. He's highly educated. He has plenty of social interaction, a stimulating job that requires a lot of thinking. He's married, he has a strong family network, and I should note that he rides the Peloton bike every morning.

Arellano: That's more than me.

Subramanian: Yeah. I'm still trying to figure out which classes he likes.

Arellano: Yeah. Up until this point, we've been talking about the pitfalls that Biden needs to sidestep when it comes to how old he is. But could being a nonagenarian actually be an asset?

Subramanian: Yeah, I think his advisors argue that his persona as an elder statesman could help Democrats hold on to voters who see the party as changing too quickly or veering too far left. And I think you've really seen him lean into his more moderate tendencies as of late. You know, as we approach the second half of his presidency, he wants to make sure that blue-collar voters and folks in the center see that he is somebody who's not going to just wholesale embrace this progressive wing of the party. But for younger voters, that aspect of it is really important. And so I think some of the references he even makes aren't going to resonate. At the beginning of the presidency, there was talk about him achieving the legacy, similar to FDR or, uh, LBJ. Lyndon Johnson, and those are references that just really won't speak to younger voters. So I think he really needs to remember to balance that. You know, I think about what Bill Clinton famously said of his challenger, Bob Dole, who was 73 when he challenged him. “I don't think Senator Dole is too old to be president. It's the age of his ideas that I question.” And I think that's what Biden needs to be aware of and his advisors are aware of, which is why we're seeing him try to appeal to some of the younger voters through some of his policies, like student debt relief.

Arellano: So more references to Taylor Swift and the Weeknd, then?

Subramanian: As much as possible, as often as possible.

Arellano: Meanwhile, as supporters of both Trump and Biden will say, don't pay attention to how old they are. There is one 2024 presidential candidate who is making no qualms about attacking that very idea.

Nikki Haley clip: In the America I see, the permanent politician will finally retire.

Arellano: Shortly after Republican Nikki Haley launched her campaign for president, she called for a mandatory mental competency test for candidates who are over 75. 

Haley clip: We'll have term limits for Congress and mandatory mental competency tests for politicians over 75 years old.

Arellano: What was the response to that suggestion? 

Subramanian: Yeah, I mean, I think we get into tricky waters here. Biden didn't undergo a cognitive screening during his last physical. And experts are really divided about whether it's necessary for older adults. Some experts say doctors typically perform cognitive screening tests only when there is evidence of a problem, and so far there hasn't been any evidence of that. I think people point to Biden's verbal slips or some of the gaffes he's made. And it's important to remember he's been doing that as long as he's been in office, because he's spoken openly about growing up struggling with a stutter and how that's informed his speech. So I think we need to look at this responsibly and reporting on the health of the people trying to lead our country.

Arellano: Finally, Courtney, it is interesting to see all this obsession about the age of presidents in the past couple of decades because – I hate to put it this way – older people in public life has been a thing for decades, has been a part of the democracy of this country. I mean, right now there's seven U.S. senators who are in their 80s, including Bernie Sanders, who sought the presidential nomination for Democrats in 2016 and 2020. Mitch McConnell, Kentucky, the Republican leader, Strom Thurman of South Carolina was a senator, a U.S. senator until he was 100. Robert Byrd of West Virginia served until he was 92. So is it ageist to talk about the age of a president and, specifically in this case, Biden?

Subramanian: I think that is a very important point. But we have to remember, senators and congressmen, no matter how important they are, are not presidents. They can take a day off or a week off, and they're not the ones handling the nuclear codes, right? So the mental health of  the most powerful person in the world should be up for debate.I mean, it is a fair question. I think we need to think about how we talk about it. But the presidency is an enormously taxing job for a person half Biden's age. Biden himself said during the 2020 campaign that voters should consider his age as they make up their minds about their vote.

Biden clip: You know, hopefully, I can demonstrate not only with ages come wisdom, an experience that can make things a lot better. But, well, look, that's for you all to decide, not for me to decide.

Subramanian: And even beyond the realities of his health, Biden has repeatedly said when he was deciding whether or not to run for a second term that he's a great respecter of fate. And right now fate is telling him that he's fit to serve a second term.

Arellano: Well, there you have it, Courtney. Thank you so much for this conversation.

Subramanian: Thank you.Thanks for having me.

Arellano: And that's it for this episode of The Times Essential News from the L.A. Times. David Toledo and Kasia Broussalian were the jefes on this episode. It was edited by Heba Elorbany, and Mark Nieto mixed and mastered it. Our show is produced by Denise Guerra, Kasia Broussalian, David Toledo and Ashlea Brown. Our editorial assistants are Roberto Reyes and Nicholas Perez. Our fellow is Helen Li. Our engineers are Mario Diaz, Mark Nieto and Mike Heflin. Our executive producers are Jazmín Aguilera, Shani Hilton and Heba Elorbany. And our theme music is by Andrew Eapen. I'm Gustavo Arellano. We'll be back Friday with all the news and desmadre.