clock menu more-arrow no yes

How old should a president be?

Americans are poised to elect the oldest commander in chief ever to serve. Does that matter?

If you buy something from a Vox link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics statement.

The Highlight by Vox logo

Part of the May Issue of The Highlight, our home for ambitious stories that explain our world.


Four years ago, the United States elected its oldest president to date. In the coming weeks, 74-year-old President Trump and 77-year-old Joe Biden, the former vice president and now Democratic nominee, will face off after a Democratic primary in which the other top contenders were 78 (Sen. Bernie Sanders) and 70 (Sen. Elizabeth Warren).

The graying ballot has led many to suggest that the stress of presidency is not for the aged, or that it might be time to cap the age of future candidates. But we couldn’t pin down the one aspect of this thorny issue that would matter most to voters. With longer life spans and improved health among older Americans, is it true that age affects a president’s performance? Could an old president ever represent the interests of the young? So Vox asked experts on opposing ends of the age spectrum — one specializing in the elderly, and the other, the politics of the young — to answer this question: How old should a president be?

Ultimately, the question elicits no easy answer. But in asking our writers to tackle the idea, we can better understand how age affects and intersects with the most powerful role in our nation.


The “youth vote” is new. But don’t assume it necessarily favors a young president.

Lately, it’s been hard to ignore the unbearable oldness of American politics. Donald Trump, the country’s oldest first-term president at 74, was born the year the bikini was invented. Joe Biden, the 77-year-old Democratic nominee, is older than the microwave. Bernie Sanders, 79, was born shortly before the attack on Pearl Harbor, the same year you could first buy a packet of M&Ms. Two of the highest-profile women candidates for president — Hillary Clinton and Elizabeth Warren — were also born in the 1940s, at least a decade before little girls started to play with Barbie dolls.

The graying of the American presidency is especially notable because our nation’s most visionary presidents have typically been young. Theodore Roosevelt, who became the youngest president ever at 42, had the foresight to preserve roughly 230 million acres of public land for future generations to enjoy. John F. Kennedy, inaugurated at 43 with the cry that “the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans,” found some common cause with the civil rights movement, vowed to put a man on the moon, and started the Peace Corps to spread American values (via American young people) around the world. Barack Obama, who became president at 46, shielded young undocumented immigrants from deportation and committed to the Paris climate agreement, aimed at preserving the planet for future generations.

The youngest presidents tended to think more clearly about policies that would benefit future generations, and were less circumscribed by longstanding norms and prejudices.

Even famous presidents who seem like great men of history would have been considered young, fresh faces in our current climate. Abraham Lincoln was in his early 50s when he shepherded the nation through the Civil War, younger than Kamala Harris. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was 51 — the same age as Cory Booker — when he started implementing the New Deal to pull America out of the Great Depression. One of those New Deal initiatives was the National Youth Administration, which provided “work study” for young Americans who were out of a job; the Texas division of the NYA was led by a young Lyndon B. Johnson, who, years later, would take the oath of office at 55. He had already created Medicare and Medicaid as part of his “Great Society” by the time he was Amy Klobuchar’s age.

Young, glamorous candidates have typically fared better in general elections, but the votes don’t always break down according to age. The idea of the “youth vote” is actually relatively new, and these young presidents weren’t necessarily defined by their support from young voters. Until the early 2000s, young people tended to vote roughly the same way as their parents did. Even the baby boomers, although slightly more liberal than their parents, favored Richard Nixon in 1968 and Ronald Reagan in 1980. In fact, Barack Obama was the first president to owe his decisive victory to youth enthusiasm. After a series of “youthquakes” in the primaries helped Obama beat Clinton, and a massive mobilization of college students and young people, two-thirds of voters under 30 chose Obama over John McCain in 2008.

But young voters tend to connect with big, bold ideas for America’s future, rather than policies that seem stuck in the past. So it’s no surprise that our current presidential contenders — both in their 70s — have struggled to connect with young Americans. Roughly two-thirds of people ages 18 to 29 disapprove of Trump, according to a Harvard Institute of Politics study that has tracked youth attitudes across his presidency, and it’s not hard to see why: From withdrawing from the Paris climate agreement to threatening protections for young immigrants to weakening student debt oversight, Trump’s policies have favored his older base over the next generation of Americans.

And while Joe Biden has actively tried to reach out to the young voters who favored his more progressive opponent, he’s struggled to build youth enthusiasm around a message that is more about a return to a gentler past than a vision of a bold new future.

But young voters’ attraction to big, bold ideas doesn’t always lead young voters to young candidates; in 2020, they actually favored the oldest contender, Bernie Sanders, and remained cool to millennial Pete Buttigieg. Yet Sanders’s 2020 bid failed, in part because he based his electoral strategy on a massive surge in youth turnout that didn’t materialize as much as his campaign expected. Youth support is important, but without massive turnout, it can’t deliver a win. And generational change is almost always more complicated than it appears.

Of course, medical and lifestyle advances — like the decline of smoking — have meant that people in their 60s and 70s are likely healthier and stick around longer than people the same age in earlier eras. Still, US leadership is trending old not because voters favor older leaders, but because the system protects incumbents — and because the campaign finance system makes it harder than ever to raise the money necessary to unseat a sitting leader.

It’s no secret that millennials are worse off financially than their parents were at their age (due to the coronavirus pandemic, Gen Z is likely to be similarly strapped for cash). At the same time, the infusion of corporate money into political races has made running for office exorbitantly expensive: By the early 2010s, the average House of Representatives race cost about $1.5 million, roughly double what it cost to run when boomers were first entering the political arena in the early 1980s. Even the average state legislature race cost more than $80,000.

In other words, politics got more expensive at the exact moment when the rising generation of young people were most financially strapped: If millennials couldn’t afford to buy a home or a car, how could they mount a bid for Congress? If they can’t run for Congress, how could they ever run for Senate or president?

Without a new generation of leaders breathing down their necks, the established leaders are simply sticking around and aging in place. And if America can’t build a bench of young political talent willing and able to step into the arena, there may be nobody left to replace them.

— Charlotte Alter

Charlotte Alter is a national correspondent at Time covering political campaigns and youth social movements. Her first book, The Ones We’ve Been Waiting For: How a New Generation of Leaders Will Transform America, was published in February.


There are unexpected strengths to an aging mind

Come November, we’ll have two septuagenarian candidates facing off. If they’re not geezers, they’re geezer-adjacent. Should we be worried?

A president’s schedule requires fortitude, patience, and intense concentration. A typical day includes a series of high-level meetings and events, including briefings by Cabinet members and White House staff, meetings with congressional and foreign leaders, and delivering remarks at various press events. There are official visits to important allied countries, international meetings such as the United Nations General Assembly each fall, and political events in key states. The president signs (or vetoes) legislation but is also the chief executive of the largest employer in the US, a diplomat, and commander in chief of the armed forces. It’s a grueling job physically and cognitively, and it’s natural to question whether there is an upper age limit on meeting such demands.

Looking at the health of former presidents doesn’t necessarily provide any answers. Our presidents have ranged widely in age, and age hasn’t always correlated with mental and physical fitness. George W. Bush (age 54 at inauguration, 62 when he left office) was up at 5:15 each morning and in bed by 9 pm. But Bill Clinton, one of our younger presidents at just 46 when elected, had a quadruple bypass operation on his heart just three years after leaving office. Our oldest president before Donald Trump, Ronald Reagan, who was elected at 69, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s four years after he left office.

It is true that our brains slow down with every decade after 60, but slow isn’t necessarily bad. Our slow, deliberate cognitions tend to be more accurate than snap judgments. And although our brains shrink with age, size isn’t everything; if it were, then there would be no smart children, and people with enormous heads would be smarter than everyone else — and they aren’t.

And although the societal narrative is that we tend to lose mental ability as we age, some brain functions actually improve. For example, we see positive changes in mood and outlook, punctuated by the exceptional benefits of experience. Many older minds can intuitively synthesize a lifetime of information and make smarter decisions based on decades of learning from their mistakes. (Not every older adult, of course — we can all think of exceptions.) The aging brain changes, thanks to neuroplasticity. It changes itself, heals itself, and finds other ways to do things. Abstract reasoning can actually improve.

To cognitive scientists like myself, wisdom is the ability to see patterns where others don’t see them, to extract common points from prior experience and use those to make predictions about what is likely to happen next. Oldsters aren’t as fast, perhaps, at mental calculations and recalling names, but they tend to be much better and faster at seeing the big picture. And that results from the accumulated set of things we’ve seen and experienced — what we call crystallized intelligence. Naturally, the more you’ve experienced, the more of this type of intelligence you are able to tap into.

It’s also important not to focus too much on how many birthdays a person has had. Some people remain vigorous well past 80. Just look at Julia “Hurricane” Hawkins, a now 104-year-old competitive runner who took home two gold medals in the senior games last year. Or Eubie Blake, the late ragtime composer and pianist who in 1979 turned in one of his most delightful performances on Saturday Night Live at age 92. Neuroscientist Brenda Milner remains an influential researcher at age 101, and the Dalai Lama, 84, recently published his 125th book.

A big part of how well one’s mental capacities fare at any age revolves around healthy practices concerning sleep, diet, and exercise. These become particularly important after age 65 but aren’t always easy for a busy president to accomplish. Good diet and exercise help us sleep, allowing us to consolidate and strengthen memories. It’s a myth that older adults need less sleep than younger adults. One night of disrupted sleep can lead to memory difficulties for up to two weeks. I asked the Dalai Lama the key to his productivity and energy, and, without missing a beat, he said, “Nine hours of sleep every night.”

On CBS This Morning in January, I proposed that we should find a term that’s less emotionally laden than old people. I suggested we try oldsters, because it sounds like youngsters and hipsters. But 65-year-old Gayle King wasn’t having it. And so to Gayle, and the rest of the country, how’s this: Perhaps older adults should de-stigmatize and proudly take back the word geezer.

Our next president is likely to either start out as a geezer or become one in office. But instead of associating an older president with cognitive limitations, we should be looking at the science, which suggests that an aging mind might be better at making big-picture decisions, or — due to age-related increases in empathy and compassion — be skilled at bringing people together. We’ve had great presidents and not-so-great presidents, but the idea that age is correlated to their performance is simply not true. Ultimately, aging varies so much from person to person that the number of birthdays you’ve had doesn’t say much about who you are.

— Daniel J. Levitin

Daniel J. Levitin is a neuroscientist. His newest book is the New York Times bestseller, Successful Aging: A Neuroscientist Explores the Power and Potential of Our Lives.


Support Vox’s explanatory journalism

Features

Apple picking is a bizarre imitation of hard work

Science & Health

Healing, a saga

Identities

For protesters, trauma lingers long after the marching ends

View all stories in The Highlight

Sign up for the newsletter The Weeds

Understand how policy impacts people. Delivered Fridays.