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How to think about the likely 2024 presidential contenders
Two months from today I will enter the last year of my 60s. So I’ve naturally paying attention to the never ending (and somewhat context free) stories about the ages of Biden and Trump as we see the 2024 presidential campaign taking shape.
While both potential candidates have me by about a decade, I can attest that things change when you get older. My knees hurt when sitting in one position for two long. I deal with restless leg symptoms some nights when I go to bed. I am on blood pressure and cholesterol blocking medication. And I recently went through treatment for prostate cancer.
On the other hand, I still walk the dogs three times a day so that I get in about two miles walking. I try to be very careful of where they’re walking as I have an absolute dread of one of them cutting me off, causing a fall that potentially breaks a hip.1 Everything I’ve read tells me that a major break like that can start other deterioration (saw it with my grandmother).
My dad died at 73. My mom died at 80. But both had a history of smoking and untreated high blood pressure. In my case, when I was preparing for retirement the TIAA actuaries pegged my payments as if I would live until 93. I hope they knew what they were doing.
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When I read all the stories about Biden’s age (with Trump just three years behind) I evaluate those through my own experience. Some of these stories are just reports of polling data where respondents were asked if they would prefer younger candidates. Philip Bump quoted polling by the Associated Press and Wall Street Journal showing that 77% (AP) and 73% (WSJ) thought Biden was too old to run for president. The equivalent numbers for Trump were 51% and 47%, respectively. Clearly, we are supposed to believe that some magical factor separates the space between 77 and 80!
This polling — which itself lacks explanatory substance — feeds other stories. Last week Bump’s Washington Post colleague David Ignatius wrote a dreadful piece on why Biden should drop out (and take Harris with him). His reasoning? He doesn’t want Trump to win and the polling says that people are worried about Biden’s age.
Bump’s piece included historic polling data on how people thought about Ronald Reagan. In 1987 (when Reagan was 76) only 42% thought he was too old to be president.2 Seven years later, Reagan was being treated for Alzheimers. James Fallows observed that when re-elected in 1944 FDR couldn’t walk3.
As Dan Pfeiffer wrote in his SubStack yesterday, the Biden age concerns are a reflection of the press-polling-press merry-go-round. He cites a Media Matters analysis from the spring that shows the number of broadcast minutes devoted to the age of the two candidates.
Given that Fox News Opinion folks and the Trump Campaign infrastructure (but I repeat myself) have painted Biden as mentally incompetent since the 2020 campaign, this isn’t surprising4. Trump has so much else going on that his age concerns don’t get much attention5.
Today’s newsletter was prompted by a podcast I heard while walking the dogs this weekend. On The Media, in addition to talking with Fallows about his SubStack above, talked to Steven Austed, Protective Life Endowed Chair in Healthy Aging Research at the University of Alabama Birmingham. While I don’t have a transcript of that interview, OTM did reference a similar piece in New York Magazine. This is an interesting exchange (given my fear of being tripped by the dogs):
The level of discourse is really high right now.
Exactly. But my feeling is that just from physical competency, not mental competency, they both seem like they can get around. Much was made of Biden tripping over that sandbag a few months back. But to me, somebody who thinks about and watches older people a lot, the important thing was that he caught himself. He didn’t hit his head, he didn’t get hurt.
He’s still got the instincts not to.
Yeah, exactly right. And to me, anybody could trip over a sandbag and fall, but a lot of older people would do that and they’d hit their face and they’d end up with a concussion. He seemed to be fine.
The interview reminded me of an interview with another specialist on aging that the New Yorker Radio Hour6 did back in January. The host, David Remnick, interviewed Jack Rowe from the Stanford University Center on Longevity (he was at Harvard at the time of the interview). This time there was a transcript.
The fundamental finding here of decades of research, David, is that the older people become, the less like each other they become. All 30 or 40-year-olds are pretty much the same in terms of the kidney function or lung function, immune function, cardiac function, even cognitive function. As you get out to 80, there's tremendous heterogeneity. While the average 80-year-old is quite a bit lower in function than the average 30-year-old in many factors, there are always 80-year-olds who perform like the average 30-year-old.
I think these people are selected into a group. Anybody who can run a presidential campaign, talk about are they going to make it? Are they going to get too tired, et cetera? The presidential campaign is to test. [chuckles] If you can make it through the campaign, that's harder than being president. I would imagine some ways.
Austed made exactly the same point about the rigors of campaigning. It’s not like we’re talking about picking a random 77 or 80 year old and ask them to be president. We’re talking about two men accustomed to the rigors of public life and surrounded by people to help them manage it.
In a magical world imagined by pollsters, would we prefer younger and more vibrant candidates? Would it be better to not deal with candidates who are hampered with public speech or are saddled with 91 felony indictments?
Sure. But that’s not going to happen. The race (barring surprises7) is already set.
So let’s ignore the peripheral issues of non-context polling and cherry-picked screen shots. Let’s focus on who will do the job of president on behalf of the American people.
The same fear has kept me from taking advantage of Colorado skiing or mountain climbing.
Reminder — he had been shot in the chest six years earlier.
Woodrow Wilson had a stroke while in office. Dwight Eisenhower had a heart attack. John F. Kennedy was on persistent (but unreported) medication.
While simultaneously being a devious sociopath who is destroying America.
Except as it relates to his claim that he weighs 215 pounds!
For some reason, the NYRH is always 35 minutes long.
And if those things happen, we’ll deal with it. Like we did in 1945, in 1963, or when LBJ canceled his campaign in 1968.