Presidents are getting older. Former President Donald Trump was the oldest person to take office when he was sworn in on January 20, 2017, and President Biden broke that record four years later. If either of them is elected again next year, at ages 78 and 81, respectively, they will be older than the previous record holder, Ronald Reagan, was when he took office. left position at the age of 77.
The possibility of an octogenarian on the presidential ticket worries many Americans, perhaps because it is not just the presidency that is aging. The current Congress, with an average age of 65 in the Senate and 58 in the House, It is the oldest in history. Last week, when Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, 81, appeared to freeze while speaking for the second time in two months, there was New calls for him to step aside.and California Senator Dianne Feinstein, 90 has been under similar scrutiny after a series of health problems. The former ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, 51 years old and candidate for the Republican nomination, has call for competency tests for candidates over 75, and his opponent Vivek Ramaswamy, a 38-year-old businessman, has said it’s time for a new generation step up and lead.
Voters are concerned about the age of candidates and elected officials, especially when it comes to Biden. The vast majority of American adults, 77 percent, say they are too old to be effective for another four years. according to an AP-NORC survey in August. Fifty-seven percent of registered voters thought age severely limited President Biden’s ability to do his job. in an August Economist/YouGov poll. Similar questions were asked about Feinstein and McConnell, of whom 60 percent said the same.
But will voters really start rejecting candidates because of their age? There are many reasons why older politicians continue to hold the levers of power, and the structure of our political system makes it difficult to force them to let go, even as Americans’ concerns about the country’s aging political leadership grow. . That’s why Americans can continue to support older politicians when they’re at the polls, even when they say they prefer a younger leadership group.
Americans are increasingly concerned about the age of politicians
Biden might be the oldest president in American history, but concerns about whether presidents are too old for the job have been swirling for a while. Americans became increasingly concerned about Reagan’s age during his tenure. At the beginning of his second term in 1985, 33 percent of respondents to an ABC/Washington Post poll said Reagan was too old to be president, but by 1987 that figure had risen to 42 percent. And a January 1987 survey of Luis Harris and Associates found that 48 percent of respondents agreed with the statement that Reagan was getting too old to be president.
In the modern era, presidents have traditionally released details about their health and the public has demanded transparency, because the job is physically and mentally demanding and voters want to make sure the person they elect is the one who gets it done. Concerns about this are based on past events: President Woodrow Wilson He was able to hide the effects of a stroke. in 1919 from most of the American public, and his wife, Edith, essentially acted as de facto president until his second term ended in 1921. Later, in 1967, ratification of the 25th Amendment described what should happen if a president died or became incapacitated.
But presidents do not always been communicative with information. In the absence of diagnoses, voters have often relied on external signs that their candidates could be incapable to do their jobs. Perhaps the most obvious is the age of the candidate, simply because as we age, we face greater chances of serious medical problems and death.
But in practice, it’s difficult to draw clear lines, in part because age is far from a perfect indicator of health. Some older politicians are perceived as more capable than others: 34 percent of voters thought the age of Sen. Bernie Sanders, who is almost 82, severely limited his ability to do his job in the August election. . Economists/YouGov Polland 28 percent said age would limit Trump’s ability to be president if he were elected again. Those differences suggest that it is not just age discrimination, but the specific health conditions of some politicians reported in the media that voters are responding to; or, in the case of Biden, reporting on every trip on the stairs of Air Force One.
Health conditions that can arise with age, even chronic ones that require accommodations, do not necessarily mean that elected officials cannot serve effectively either, which speaks to a broader issue about how voters make assumptions about the suitability of candidates. for the position. For example, people with physical and mental disabilities are underrepresented in government: only 1 in 10 elected representatives has a disability, while nearly 16 percent of adults in the general population do. according to a study from Rutgers University. As Pennsylvania Senator John Fetterman said campaign showed, candidates may face discrimination when disabilities are combined with cognitive ability. The need for accommodations does not mean that an elected representative cannot work. “We also don’t want to lose the potential contributions of someone who is older but quite talented and now also has the benefit of experience to bring to the table,” said James M. Curry, a political scientist at the University of Utah. .
However, some voters think we should have clearer rules about when a politician is too old to hold office. Sixty-seven percent of respondents strongly or somewhat supported an age limit for serving in the Senate in a June YouGov/UMass Amherst Polland 58 percent of adults thought age limits on serving as president would be a good idea. in a Marist survey last November. Sixty-eight percent of respondents favored mental competency testing for candidates over 75 years of age. in a February YouGov/Yahoo poll. A plurality, 48 percent, think the job of president is too demanding for someone over 75, according to a June CBS/YouGov Poll. And overall, Americans’ preference for younger leadership is clear: About half of Americans believe the ideal age for a president is someone in their 50s. according to the Pew Research Center.
The risk of a politician becoming incapable of doing their job is not the only concern that could be fueling these perceptions. The age of voters and the members of Congress they elect means that programs and issues important to older votersfrom Social Security to elder abuse, are more likely to receive attention than issues more important to younger voters, such as student loans.
“I think the main reason younger Americans want younger legislators is that they feel they are not well represented by older Americans, both in terms of things that older representatives could focus on or things that older representatives could focus on. to talk that are different from what a younger candidate might do. speak,” but also because, like all Americans, they want to see themselves represented in government, Curry said. Younger Americans are now losing that representation. “This makes them less satisfied with their representative government and less satisfied with their democracy,” she said.
It is also possible, however, that despite what they say, voters would prefer to re-elect someone with experience and seniority. “The Constitution establishes minimum ages for the presidency and for the United States House and Senate, but it does not establish a maximum age,” said William J. Kole, author of The Big 100: The New World of Super-Aging. ” “And you have to believe that the Framers clearly valued experience over youth. That’s part of our DNA somehow, politically.”
But our system could ensure that older politicians remain in power.
There are some factors that contribute to the aging of our politics and provide a clue as to why voters choose older candidates despite saying in polls that they would prefer younger ones. The first is simple demographics. Older voters are more likely to vote and to choose candidates closer to your age. Younger generations of voters do not pass the Baby Boom generation until 2018. Millennials They now outnumber Baby Boomers as America’s largest generationBut the youngest millennials, at age 25, are now old enough to qualify to run for federal office. The Constitution requires Candidates for the U.S. House must be at least 25 and at least 30 for the Senate, and most candidates have prior experience before running for those important positions. They also need to build name recognition and a fundraising base. Therefore, even Generation X and Millennials are still lagging behind in representation.
That leaves Baby Boomers overrepresented in Congress, occupying almost half of the positions. And it is also difficult to force older generations to leave power if they do not want to do so. There is a strong ownership bias for federal offices, and the current structure of Congress rewards seniority, allowing longer-serving members with important committee assignments to get more attention to the needs of their constituents. In the last century, the average length of service of members of Congress have increased as members become more likely to seek and win re-election.
The cost running for office has also increasedand incumbent politicians have a great fundraising advantage. In the United States, the decision to run for reelection is largely in the hands of the candidates themselves. In countries with different systems, governing bodies may be more representative because parties can put more pressure on candidates to leave and more effectively recruit younger members to serve. It may be that American voters are not choosing younger candidates because they have no options in front of them.
As Americans continue to live longer, this may be the future of politics. “I think, honestly, it’s incumbent on older leaders to be self-aware enough to find the time to step aside,” Kole said.
Mary Radcliffe contributed to the research.