Yes, Biden Is Old -- But Let's Compare Him To The Alternative
Many voters, including Democrats, think that 80-year old President Joe Biden is too old to run for re-election. A recent poll from the Associated Press and the NORC Center for Public Affairs found that 77 percent of Americans (89 percent of Republicans and 69 percent of Democrats) thought that, if Biden won re-election, his age would be a problem. In contrast, only 51 percent of Americans, and 29 percent of Republicans, said that Donald Trump’s age was a concern. Republican leaders, such as former South Carolina governor and presidential primary candidate Nikki Haley, are pushing that talking point. They warn that Biden might not be able to serve his entire second term and that the less popular Vice President Kamala Harris would wind up in the Oval Office.
Trump has been more direct, echoing online conspiracists who doctor videos to “prove” that Biden is already too old to be President. Speaking to a group of conservative religious leaders in Washington, D.C. on September 15, Trump called Biden “cognitively impaired.” Then, ironically, he warned that, if re-elected, Biden would lead the country into “World War II.” At another point, he boasted that he was beating President “Obama” (rather than Biden) in the 2024 election polls.
Unintentionally, Trump’s bizarre speech helped illuminate the debate over the two candidates’ ages.
Yes, Biden is the oldest president in American history. And he’s only going to get older. There is no younger candidate emerging, so in November 2024, voters who worry about Biden’s age will likely have to decide between him and Trump, who is three years younger and turned 77 in June. The good news? All signs suggest that Biden is still the best candidate. He is healthier, more vigorous, sharper, smarter, more mentally stable, more knowledgeable about how government works, has a clearer grasp of issues, and is more effective at getting things done than Trump.
First, Biden is healthy. In February, after he underwent a physical exam at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, his personal physician Dr. Kevin O'Connor issued the president a clean bill of health and cleared him to continue fulfilling his duties.
"The president remains fit for duty, and fully executes all of his responsibilities without any exemptions or accommodations," O'Connor wrote in his report. An echocardiogram showed that Biden’s heart is not only operating normally with no signs of failure, but also showed “excellent functional capacity."
Like many older people, Biden staves off the effects of age by taking care of his body. During the 2020 campaign, Biden biked regularly on both a traditional bike and a Peloton. Since becoming President, he starts his mornings by working out with weights—often with a trainer, according to the Washington Post. Although Biden likes to indulge in ice cream and chocolate chip cookies, he closely watches his diet.
Of course, this doesn’t stave off everything associated with aging. Before he took office, Biden had several localized non-melanoma skin cancers removed, a result of spending a great deal of time in the sun. And from time to time, he falls. In June, after handing out diplomas at the United States Air Force Academy graduation ceremony, he tripped over a black sandbag, got back up and walked back to his seat. Although the incident generated a flurry of media stories, encouraged by the Republican operatives who want to highlight Biden’s age, by all accounts he was fine.
Of course, many younger Americans also have cancerous cells removed. Similarly, many people across the age spectrum occasionally trip and then get up, but few do so in the national spotlight. Gerald Ford, who was much younger and was an All-American football player at the University of Michigan, tripped a few times while serving as president, including tumbling down Air Force One stairs in 1975 when he was a spry 61-year-old. On Saturday Night Live, comedian Chevy Chase frequently made fun of Ford’s mishaps. But the joke was about Ford’s alleged clumsiness, not his age, whether he was too physically infirm to govern, or unlikely to finish his term of office.
Many Americans have also noticed that Biden sometimes slurs his words when he speaks, but attributing this to his age is a mistake. In fact, it is a feature of his long battle with stuttering, not a symptom of any decline in mental or physical capacity. Most stutterers outgrow the disability in childhood, but others, like Biden, continue to struggle with it in adulthood. This is a topic he’s been very candid about and has used to mentor and encourage young people with the same speech disorder.
Biden’s occasional verbal gaffes also have nothing to do with his mental sharpness. Throughout his political career—he was elected to the Senate in 1972, at the age of 29—he’s been prone to blurting things out that he later regrets, often in response to a question that he answered too quickly.
Biden’s capacity to navigate an executive schedule should also not be a concern. During the 2020 campaign, at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, he didn’t travel often, but since taking office he’s had a rigorous travel schedule at home and abroad. He’s already been doing a lot of traveling for his current campaign. Yes, Biden’s gait is slowing, but he has extraordinary stamina. He works long hours in a high-stress job and remains sharp when talking to members of Congress, his Cabinet, and the media about complicated issues. He reads his briefing papers carefully and often asks his staff to provide further information.
Trump, on the other hand, may be a few years younger, but he is truly an old man. He’s significantly overweight. He’s a fanatic for unhealthy fast food. While speaking, he often gasps for breath. He doesn’t do aerobic exercise, and even when he’s playing golf, he doesn’t walk the course; he rides on a cart. And reading? Forget it. Even as president, he boasted that he didn’t read his staff’s daily intelligence briefs. This is, in part, because he has a short attention span. "I like bullets, or I like as little as possible," he said.
Yes, the public occasionally receives an update that certifies Trump’s “superb” physical condition, but like much of the information that comes from his orbit, it’s hard to trust those reports.
The former President’s mendacity began early. In 1968, a New York City podiatrist claimed that Trump had bone spurs in his heels, providing him with the excuse he needed to get a medical exemption from military service during the Vietnam war. Dr. Larry Braunstein, the foot doctor who diagnosed the “bone spurs,” rented his office from Fred C. Trump, the former president’s father. Braunstein died in 2007, but when the New York Times looked into the matter, his daughters said that their father often recounted how he helped Trump avoid the draft as a favor to Fred. “I know it was a favor,” one daughter, Dr. Elysa Braunstein, told the Times.
Later, during the 2016 campaign, Trump rolled out obviously false assertions about his physical fitness, even as Republican conspiracists disseminated disinformation that Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton had a degenerative disease. Trump’s personal physician, Dr. Harold Bornstein, wrote one report filled with hyperbole. “If elected, Mr. Trump, I can state unequivocally, will be the healthiest individual ever elected to the presidency,” Bornstein wrote in December 2015. Trump’s “physical strength and stamina are extraordinary,” he claimed, and his bloodwork was “astonishingly excellent.”
Three years later, Bornstein confessed that Trump had dictated the letter himself. “I didn’t write that letter,” Bornstein told CNN. He also said that Trump’s bodyguard had conducted a “raid” on his medical office in February 2017, taking all of Trump’s lab reports and medical charts.
Similarly, in 2018, the White House physician, Rear Admiral Ronny Jackson, declared Trump to be in “excellent” overall health and in possession of “incredibly good genes” during a White House press briefing (although Trump talks about his genes constantly, medical doctors rarely do.) Jackson also announced that Trump was 6 foot, 3 inches and weighed 239 pounds, conveniently putting the President’s body mass index at 29.9—just below the 30.0 threshold officially described as obese, rather than merely overweight. But photos of Trump with others have raised questions about whether he is actually 6’3” (he’s actually 6’2”) or that he weighed only 239 at the time (estimates ranged as high as 267.)
Actual good health in one’s seventies requires effort, of course. Yet Jackson acknowledged that Trump didn’t have a daily physical fitness routine. He said he would encourage Trump to exercise and eat better. There’s no evidence that Trump ever took that seriously. In fact, he is apparently opposed to exercise on principle. In 2016, the Washington Post revealed that Trump gave up athletics after college because he "believed the human body was like a battery, with a finite amount of energy, which exercise only depleted." Experts, of course, understand that the human body actually becomes stronger with exercise.
But lying about Trump’s physical health has its rewards, whether it is a sweetheart office lease or a big career move. Two months after his 2018 physical exam, Trump nominated Jackson, who had no administrative experience, to be Secretary of Veterans Affairs. That nomination blew up after Senator Jon Tester (D-MT) released allegations that Jackson had overprescribed pills and drank on the job. So, in 2020, with Trump’s support, Jackson ran for and won a race for Congress from Texas’ 13th Congressional District.
Despite Jackson’s assurances, journalists have provided concrete evidence that it is Trump who may have serious health problems. In May 2017, at the G7 summit in Taormina, Sicily, the leaders of Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, and Japan walked 700 yards to take a group photo at a piazza in a hilltop town. Trump chose to wait until he could ride in a golf cart, keeping the others waiting. And during a 2020 commencement speech at West Point, which he delivered haltingly, Trump needed two hands to lift a water glass to his mouth, suggesting some kind of tremor. After the speech ended, Trump walked very slowly down a ramp, keeping his eyes on his feet. That night he explained that for the “final ten feet I ran down to level ground. Momentum!" But videos reveal that Trump did not run the "final ten feet" to the ground. He walked at a normal speed for the last three or four steps.
In contrast to the many hours Biden spends on the job, Trump has also never been known as a hard worker. While campaigning for president in 2016, he said "I would not be a president who took vacations. I would not be a president that takes time off.” Once in office, however, he took more vacations than any of his predecessors. He spent 307 days, almost a full year, golfing during his presidency, mostly at his Mar-a-Lago property in Palm Beach, Florida, and his club in Bedminster, New Jersey.
Fun fact: That is the most golf played by any sitting president in history.
And when it comes to mental health, is there any real controversy over which politician lacks the emotional stability to serve as president? While Biden is well known for privately upbraiding those who haven’t met his standards, he listens, is publicly affectionate, polite, and tirelessly greets the Americans he encounters. But numerous accounts of Trump reveal him to be thin-skinned, addicted to flattery, a megalomaniac, demagogic, impulsive, vindictive, a sociopath, and a narcissist who lacks empathy or a social conscience. During his presidency, two books—Twilight of American Sanity: A Psychiatrist Analyzes the Age of Trump, by Allen Frances, former psychiatry department chairman at Duke University School of Medicine, and The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump: 27 Psychiatrists and Mental Health Experts Assess a President, edited by Bandy X. Lee, a forensic psychiatrist at Yale School of Medicine—heightened public debate about Trump’s psychological fitness to be president.
And what about the basic intelligence of these two men? Biden, like most people, rarely discusses his intelligence. But, on many occasions, Trump has claimed that he’s “really smart” and even a “ super-genius,” pointing to his undergraduate degree from the University of Pennsylvania. “My I.Q. is one of the highest,” Trump tweeted in 2013. During a CNN-sponsored Republican town hall in Columbia, South Carolina in February 2016, he reminded the audience that “I was a good student and all of this stuff. I mean, I’m a smart person.” In 2018, Trump wrote, “Throughout my life, my two greatest assets have been mental stability and being, like, really smart.”
Yet, anyone who feels compelled to boast about how smart he is clearly suffers from profound insecurity about his intelligence and accomplishments. In Trump's case, he has good reason to doubt himself. Although he grew up in a wealthy family, he was not a good student. After high school he attended Fordham University, at the time a respected but not very selective Catholic institution, and certainly not where the sons of the super-rich expected to wind up. After two lackluster years at Fordham, he transferred to the University of Pennsylvania, an Ivy League school.
But according to Gwenda Blair’s 2001 biography, The Trumps, Trump’s grades at Fordham were not good enough to qualify for a transfer to Penn. Blair wrote that Trump got into the university as a special favor from a “friendly” admissions officer who knew Trump’s older brother, Freddy. The college’s admissions staff also surely knew that Trump’s father was a wealthy real estate developer and a potential donor.
After graduating in 1968, Trump exaggerated his academic accomplishments at Penn, statements that no one fact-checked for decades: On at least two occasions in the 1970s, TheNew York Times reported that he “graduated first in his class.” Trump is the likely source for this assertion, and it isn’t true. He didn’t even make the Dean’s List, as the campus newspaper, The Daily Pennsylvanian, reported it in 1968.
Many years ago, Biden also exaggerated his own academic credentials, but his long political life and several presidential runs meant that these statements were quickly debunked. The facts are admittedly unimpressive. Reporters discovered that at the University of Delaware, Biden graduated with a C average and was ranked 506th in a class of 688. At Syracuse University’s law school, he ranked 76th out of 85 in his graduating class. Perhaps because this is now public knowledge (Trump’s academic records have remained private) Biden has mocked Trump’s habit of boasting about his intelligence. “I’m clearly not as smart as Trump,” Biden said sarcastically in 2018, “the smartest man in the world.”
Of course, college grades and class rank aren’t the best test of someone’s potential to be an effective president. Good presidents have judgement, the ability to think strategically, to understand complex issues, and be adept at surrounding themselves with knowledgeable people. They hire, utilize, and keep good staff.
That’s Biden—not Trump. According to Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury, “100 percent” of Trump’s closest White House aides questioned his intelligence and fitness for office. According to Wolff, both Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and former Chief of Staff Reince Priebus derided Trump as an “idiot;” chief economic advisor Gary Cohn said that Trump was “dumb as shit;” and former National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster considered Trump a “dope.” This came on top of early reports that former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had called Trump a “moron.”
It’s no wonder that the Trump White House had a revolving door.
Other observers have noted that Trump has a difficult time expressing himself and speaking in complete sentences. Tony Schwartz, who spent a great deal of time with Trump while ghostwriting his 1987 book The Art of the Deal,noted that Trump has a very limited vocabulary. A linguistic analysis by Politico found that Trump speaks at a fourth-grade level. When researchers at Carnegie-Mellon University compared the Republican and Democratic 2016 presidential candidates in terms of their vocabulary and grammar, Trump scored at a fifth-grade level, the lowest of all the candidates.
More important than grades, IQ, or vocabulary is the elusive quality of judgement. That involves learning from experience, sorting out what’s important and unimportant, hiring people who will question your ideas, making decisions when none of the options are very good or when the available data is incomplete, and having a keen moral sense of right and wrong.
Let’s see a show of hands when it comes to Biden or Trump in this category.
Finally, let’s compare Trump’s record of achievement between the ages of 70 and 74 to Biden’s between the ages of 76 and 79. Biden has passed more major pieces of legislation in two and a half years than Trump did in four years in the White House.
Granted, our 2024 candidates are both old men. But only Trump is physically, emotionally, and mentally unfit to be president. As Biden likes to say, “Don’t compare me to the almighty. Compare me to the alternative.”
Peter Dreier is the E.P. Clapp Distinguished Professor of Politics at Occidental College. He has written for the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe, The Nation, American Prospect, Dissent, The New Republic, and Talking Points Memo. He is also the author of six books, most recently Baseball Rebels: The Players, People, and Social Movements That Shook Up the Game and Changed America (University of Nebraska Press, 2022.)
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