As virtually everyone covering this year’s run for the presidency has noted, the three remaining candidates of note are older than 70. If elected, Donald Trump will be 74 when sworn in for a second term. If Joe Biden were elected, he would be 78 upon becoming President. And if Bernie Sanders were to somehow resurrect his campaign and go on to win in November, he would be 79. It was 40 years ago that, at the age of 69, Ronald Reagan was elected President and one month later would turn 70. At the time, he was the oldest person ever to claim the Oval Office, and many wondered then whether he was too old.
It’s obvious that we are living longer and are generally healthier as we age than previous generations. But it’s also true that the vast majority of us slow down, both mentally and physically, as we head into our eighth decade. Why this fact of life should not be a matter of constitutional concern given the incredible sway, authorities, and importance of the American President is unclear. Age, after all, is already a factor in who can be sworn in as President. An individual has to be at least 35 years old to hold the office. Presumably, the Constitution’s drafters thought a certain level of maturity were more likely to be present with someone 35 than, say, 25.
Of course, there are always exceptions—as there is in any large group. However, common sense suggested to the Founders that exceptions should not be expected to be the rule. So, too, with individuals running for office who are well into their 70s. We all know individuals who are far more vigorous than their age would suggest. But we note their uniqueness precisely because it’s not to be expected. Genes and one’s lifestyle obviously matter. But in the absence of extensive gene testing and invasive lifestyle background checks, the rule of thumb probably should be that “older” means precisely that. If it’s reasonable to discriminate against youth, it does not seem out of bounds to put a cap on how old one can be and still be elected President.
One might object to this idea based on the fact that America’s longish presidential campaign seasons should be sufficient for voters to make an assessment about a candidate’s health and mental acuity. Yet, as we know, most Americans don’t actually pay as much attention as perhaps they should until the nominees have been chosen and November’s election closes in. Plus, those who do pay attention, who are the most engaged, are just as likely to overlook signs of serious aging—even senility—in their desire to see their favorite candidate win. Finally, even if a candidate’s medical records were totally open and exhaustive—which has never been the case—those records cannot guarantee a President’s future mental and physical health. Of course, this is true of younger Presidents as well. But electing individuals in their mid- to late 70s, with all the demands and pressures of today’s office, is more a roll of the dice than we ought to be comfortable with.
Currently, the failsafe to protect the country from a failing Chief Executive is the 25th Amendment, which allows a President, if he is self-aware enough, to step aside in favor of the Vice President. The amendment also allows the Vice President and a majority of the cabinet to sidestep the President and go directly to the leadership in Congress to assume the powers and duties of the office—in effect, a soft coup. As yet, this has path has never been taken. However, if it ever should happen, it is easy to imagine just how contested and volatile such a step would be if the President was not clearly disabled in the public’s eye and was contesting his removal. His staff might well know he needs to go, but one can bet that they would have kept that information largely from the public. Constitutions should be constructed to avoid such disputes to the degree possible. Setting age limits might have a downside but, compared to the uproar resulting from a cabinet “revolt” led by the Vice President, it might be a less costly path when it comes to regime stability.
As with many issues, drawing an exact line as to when a person is too old to be elected President can’t help but be somewhat arbitrary. However, given the realities of aging, it’s not simply arbitrary. My own guess, and it’s only that, is that 70 might well be the upper limit. Regardless, as the country heads toward November, it is inevitable that we will hear more and more about how, this time, the choice of a Vice President is more important than ever. That certainly will be true. The questions we should be asking ourselves are: Why is that true—and should it still be true in 2024?