Talking point

Is Joe Biden too old to rule? Exploring the greying of American politics

The current Senate is the oldest in American history, with an average age of 64

Let’s face it, America has a “gerontocracy problem”, said David A. Graham in The Atlantic. Washington’s halls of power are filled with people in their 60s, 70s and 80s, many of whom are too old to be effective. That problem was thrown into sharp relief last week when the San Francisco Chronicle published a remarkable story claiming that the 88-year-old Democratic senator from California, Dianne Feinstein, has become “mentally unfit to serve”. 

In the piece, four senators and three former staffers recount moments over the past two years when Feinstein has failed to fully recognise long-time colleagues and has seemed confused during discussions of policy issues. Feinstein has denied that she’s in mental decline, but even if we accept her denials, the advanced age of our politicians remains a major issue, said Peter Suderman on Reason.com

This is the oldest senate in American history, with an average age of 64. Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell is 80; Senator Chuck Grassley, 88; House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, 82. In an era in which distinctively new policy requirements (think technology regulation) and problems (climate change) have taken centre stage, we’re being governed by octogenarians who haven’t had a new idea in decades. It all raises serious questions “about the ability of our nation’s governing class to perform their jobs”.

And those questions start with the presidency, said Rod Dreher on The American Conservative. Our current commander in chief is 79. If he runs for a second term and wins, President Biden will be 82 on Inauguration Day and 86 at the end of his second term. His most likely 2024 opponent, Donald Trump, will be 78 should he be inaugurated a second time. At that age, there’s a much greater risk of senility and physical decline – as Biden is already demonstrating. True, he has always had a tendency for gaffes, but his impulsive senior moments during the Ukraine crisis – calling for regime change in Russia and labelling Russian atrocities a “genocide” – have crossed over from embarrassing to dangerous.

Actually this isn’t a new problem, said Meghan McCain in the Daily Mail. Octogenarians have long had an “iron grip” on Washington DC. I vividly recall having lunch with my dad, Senator John McCain, in the senate dining room, and seeing Senator Strom Thurmond, then in his 90s, “wheeled to his table, and a caregiver proceeding to put his napkin on him and help feed him”. Thurmond died five months after leaving office, “when he was 100 years old”. Senator Robert Byrd from West Virginia served until age 92; by the end, he was voting with hand signals. 

If that sort of issue arose in the private sector, said Ruth Marcus in The Washington Post, you could be sure “a board of directors would find a way to shunt a senile CEO aside”. But in the senate, there is no age cap and so it’s left up to the voters to oust politicians who’ve passed their prime. Unfortunately their staffs often cover up the fact they’re “no longer functioning.” And the politicians themselves won’t admit it: most people in power are simply “unwilling to recognise when it is time to step down”.

The solution is clear: age limits on our legislators, said Maureen Callahan in the New York Post. Commercial airline pilots have a mandatory retirement age: 65. So do air-traffic con­­trollers: 56. So why not politicians? A recent YouGov poll found a clear majority of Americans want an age limit of 70 for elected officials. If that limit were brought in now, it would force 30% of current senators to retire. “Who really thinks that a cohort of 70- and 80-somethings” should be charting America’s future?

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