On Sunday, America will experience a moment unique in its history – when a sitting president turns 80.
Administration aides would surely prefer that the other big family celebration at the White House this weekend – the wedding of President Joe Biden’s granddaughter, Naomi – gets most of the headlines.
The political sensitivities of having an octogenarian in the Oval Office mean there’s unlikely to be big news about birthday bashes – unlike when President Barack Obama hit 50 while in office and held several parties, including one which featured a reelection fundraiser jam featuring Herbie Hancock and Jennifer Hudson.
Biden’s entrance into his ninth decade will only bring fresh speculation about whether he will run for reelection – a decision he says will be made with his family. The president has said it’s his intention to seek a second term but that after a lifetime scarred by personal tragedy, he’s a great respecter of fate. Whatever happens, the question of the president’s health and mental capacity is certain to be at the center of any 2024 campaign – both because Republicans will put it there and because it’s a reasonable concern for voters sizing up their commander-in-chief.
Biden’s birthday comes at a moment when the question of how old is too old to serve in top political leadership posts is under a new spotlight.
On Thursday for instance, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, 82, announced that she would step down from the leadership as the Democratic Party moves into the minority in the next Congress.
“For me, the hour’s come for a new generation to lead the Democratic Caucus that I so deeply respect,” Pelosi said, in a floor speech that felt like a moment when an era came to an end.
After two decades at the top of her party in the House, Pelosi was doing something that is fundamental to a democracy’s capacity to sustain and regenerate itself – she voluntarily gave up power – an honorable tradition inaugurated by President George Washington when he declined to seek a third term. But Pelosi also implicitly posed the question of whether if it is now time for her to hand authority and responsibility to younger colleagues – is it time for others to do so too?
After all, the seductive idea of a passing of a generational torch has been a powerful symbol in modern American history – and animated the rise of presidents like John Kennedy and Bill Clinton, for instance. And the poignant truth about American politics is that decisions are being made on issues like climate change, foreign policy and health care that will reverberate in decades to come that top leaders will not live to see.
But the old guard is still in control right now.
Two days before Pelosi’s announcement, a slightly younger political titan, Donald Trump, gave word that at the age of 76 that he was far from ready to leave the stage. The ex-president launched a campaign for a new White House term that would take him well past his 80th birthday if he were to win the 2024 election.
In the Senate, Minority leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who is 80, resisted an effort by a younger colleague – Florida Sen. Rick Scott, 69 – to topple him for his leadership post. Senate Majority leader Chuck Schumer, who is celebrating the Democratic midterm election victory which means the party will hang onto the chamber, is a comparative young buck at 71.
In some ways, the verve and drive of older leaders is admirable at an age when many people are long retired – and an example to society that the elderly are just as capable and worthy as younger generations. The elixir of power that leads them to endure the indignities and the spotlight of a political career remains a marvel. Biden for instance, who spent most of his adult life chasing after the presidency, is just back from a grueling trip to Egypt and Asia. The flight home on Air Force One alone took 24 hours.
Yet the prominence of the seventy-and-eighty somethings at the top of the political tree does also raise questions about whether it is healthy that younger politicians are not at this moment in American history taking more responsibility or have more power. There is a sense that neither political party has done a good job grooming more youthful heirs, a scenario that that risks further creating distance between politicians and rising generations. That could be a particular problem for Democrats since CNN’s exit polls in the midterm elections suggested that 55% of the party’s voters were aged 18 to 44. A majority of GOP voters – 54% – were older than 45.
Institutional political traditions are also an impediment to youth – especially in Congress where power is built on seniority that takes painstaking years to accrue.
At the same time however, younger politicians might also need to look in the mirror. The reason why Biden, Trump and Pelosi are still the most powerful leaders in the country is that so far, no younger, dynamic, history making figures have emerged from below to force them off the scene. Biden and Trump fought off younger rivals in their presidential primaries and proved themselves to their own sets of voters. Pelosi’s skill at keeping her conference together and supporting Democratic presidents made her an icon in her party, and apart from a few periods of grumbling from younger subordinates, she escaped serious leadership challenges.
Here’s one indicator of the dearth of up-and-coming talent in the Democratic Party: The most energizing campaigner in the midterms was from a younger generation – but since he’d already served two White House terms, ex-President Barack Obama served to emphasize the lack of top talent on the Democratic bench.
Trump meanwhile may have more to fear from a young pretender.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, 44, was born in the 1970’s — at a time when the most recent Republican president was filling tabloids as he carved a reputation as a wheeler dealer and New York City playboy. (When DeSantis was born in 1978, Biden was already in his second Senate term. If the Florida governor were to win the GOP nomination and face Biden in a general election, the president would face the unappealing prospect of standing on a debate stage with a rival who was roughly half his age.)
Trump’s early announcement of a third presidential campaign this week failed to unite the party around him amid growing criticism that the ex-president’s election denialism was responsible for suppressing a GOP red wave in the midterms. Trump’s best hope, however, is that his fervent base voters might see any attempt by DeSantis, who roared to reelection last week, to topple their hero as a betrayal.
That is one reason why DeSantis, who after all, has time on his side, might ultimately decide to give the 2024 race a pass. But there already signs that the post-Trump generation of politicians is itching to take his movement forward.
Former UN ambassador Nikki Haley, ex-Vice President Mike Pence, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley and South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem have all been mentioned as potential heirs to his throne – though there is no sign that the ex-president is ready to give it up.
A better-than-expected performance by Democrats in the midterms helped to ease some of the questions about Biden’s decision about a reelection race. The president’s position is also being helped by the lack of clear successors.
Democrats fret about the prospects of Vice President Kamala Harris should Biden not stand, after her misfiring 2020 primary bid and her uneven performance in office over the last two years. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg was the breakout star of that campaign, but his path to the Democratic nomination looks challenging. The midterms did produce some prospective Democratic candidates of the future – reelected Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and the new governor of Pennsylvania – Josh Shapiro. But there’s not exactly a generational star like Obama waiting to rocket to power. and there’s no compulsion for Biden to step down because a can’t miss younger leader is waiting in the wings.
Still, polls this year have consistently suggested that Americans aren’t keen on a Trump vs. Biden rematch. And in the midterm exit polls only 30% of respondents wanted the president to run for reelection. Still, with an approval rating of 40% in those exit polls, he’s slightly more popular than Trump who had only a 38% approval rating among all voters.
In her speech announcing her departure from leadership Thursday, Pelosi recalled that “scripture teaches us that for everything, there is a season.”
Her epiphany is however unlikely to stop other political leaders of an advanced age trying to defy time.