The most popular criticism of President Biden is that he is too old to lead a country where it is often illegal to ask the age of an individual who is applying for a job. You can swim in the irony. It is fair to consider whether an individual is fit for the requirements of a job. It is not fair to base that fitness on age alone. To do so defines ageism. And it’s wrong.
Last week, Nikki Haley said that it was a sure thing that Biden would die in office if reelected. Never mind that the average 80-year-old will live as long as 9.6 years longer, by one estimation. (Some will be vital the entire time.) It’s ghoulish fear-mongering to suggest that incompetence and death are certain in one’s ninth decade. Rupert Murdoch and Warren Buffett are 92 and still leaders in their fields. At 97, John Kander recently completed the score for his 16th Broadway musical.
Age alone does not qualify or disqualify a person from a job. Age does not determine fitness for a job. (Nor does gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, hair or eye color.) One must look at the job requirements and the ability of an individual to meet those requirements.
Aging can put one at a higher risk for certain physical challenges. It is fair to consider that risk, with the understanding that risk does not imply certainty. President Biden shows some physical signs of aging. He has a halting gate due to spinal arthritis. That stiffness makes him appear “old,” but it does not affect on his cognitive abilities or his political acumen, which arguably are more important to consider in a presidential candidate. Franklin Roosevelt, who wore leg braces and needed assistance to walk, was elected four times, led the country out of the Great Depression and also through most of World War II. His gait did not deter him.
John Dickerson, a journalist and presidential historian, suggests that the presidency should be looked at as an organization. It is the administration that is put in place by the president that runs the country. Within that context, it is cabinet appointments, policy priorities and chief advisers that determine the arc of the country. Management ability is key. Good leaders are focused but flexible enough to meet unexpected events like an internal or external attack, a natural disaster, a pandemic. Good leaders get advice from diverse and well-informed advisers. They see a different point of view as helpful to making good decisions. They hold themselves accountable and learn from their mistakes. Those characteristics are not specific to any age group.
The bully pulpit comes with the job. Persuasiveness is critical to the role. More than just being a good orator (which is helpful), a successful president knows how to read the public. They know when to approach “the people” to bring public opinion to the fore. They also know when to work quietly behind the scenes to get the job done.
A president must also persuade the leaders of other countries to become allies in issues that affect the entire world. Our country’s power helps, but power alone does not ensure cooperation or loyalty; more important is trust and dependability. Persuasiveness might be helped by experience, but it is not determined by age.
Political skill is also core to the success of a president. Among other things, it’s the ability to run a campaign that appeals to the public and, also, an administration that can cut a deal with the opposition to achieve progress. It’s a familiarity with the rules of the system and the people within it. It’s about not letting the perfect get in the way of progress. It’s about achieving victories without creating enemies. A good politician can comfortably “walk softly and carry a big stick.” It is not a skill dependent on age.
Temperament matters. There will be unscheduled crises to deal with as president. How they are addressed is a function of temperament. A good president will not add to the chaos of a crisis, but rather respond with steadiness and resolve.
Management ability, persuasiveness, political skill and temperament are the key characteristics of leadership, suggests Dickerson. Great presidents are great leaders. They often have great flaws to boot; that is the nature of greatness.
Aging is not a flaw. Age does not determine the effectiveness of a leader. Suggesting otherwise is an attempt to distract citizens from focusing on Biden’s record, which is accomplished. Additionally, it’s an insult to assume that the 11 million people in our country who are past the age of 80 are no longer capable of being productive.
It is an unfortunate fact that the majority of our citizens think that Joe Biden is “too old” to be president. It’s a prejudice based on bias, not fact. Many of the same people who supported Bernie Sanders, one year older than Biden, or Donald Trump, four years younger, find Biden’s age a problem. It appears that age is a problem when it is convenient.
In the 2007 presidential election campaign event, Republican candidate John McCain deflected a racist attack from the audience on Barack Obama, saying his opponent was a “decent person and a family man.” McCain went on to disagree with Obama on issues. There are plenty of issues that threaten our country; it would benefit the country to talk about the environment, civil rights, public safety, education, housing, poverty, and how to achieve peace. The country is best served when leaders are chosen based on their positions, and skills. Age is a red herring that distracts us from that task.
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