The U.S. Is an Outlier With Its Gerontocracy
Other democracies have moved to a new generation of leaders. Will U.S. voters get the chance to elect one?
President Joe Biden's age is becoming a theme of his foreign trips. Peter Baker of the New York Times wrote that during Biden's European trip in June, G-7 leaders like German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson were "protectively treating him [Biden] like a distinguished elderly relative," answering shouted questions for him and pointing him towards the camera. The Europe and Middle East trips were planned to be together, until his staff realized that doing so would be "crazy" for a 79-year-old, a White House official told the Times. On July 16, Biden spoke flatly and haltingly through prepared remarks during and after meetings in Saudi Arabia.
The presidency appears to have significantly aged Biden, as it has done to other, younger presidents. Biden's public speeches are much less vigorous than during the 2020 election. Biden does far fewer press conferences and interviews than his predecessors. Biden has slightly more Instagram followers than President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine (17.7 million to 17 million) -- but it's unthinkable that he would use the platform himself to communicate with the public as Zelensky does.
It isn't just Biden, who would be 86 at the end of a second presidential term. (He says he is running in 2024.) Donald Trump is 76. Nancy Pelosi is 82. Steny Hoyer is 83. Mitch McConnell is 80. Chuck Schumer is 71. Barring Biden stepping aside for another Democrat or Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis getting the Republican nomination, it seems quite possible that the 2024 matchup will be between two people in their late 70s -- Biden and Trump -- who are both incredibly unpopular. Since 2012, the U.S. presidential contest hasn't had a major candidate younger than 69. The current U.S. Congress is the oldest ever, and half of the Senate is 65 years of age or older. The three conservative Supreme Court justices that Trump appointed are all in their 50s, thus they could serve for another 30 to 40 years.
Money in politics, entrenched wealth, the power of incumbency, and partisanship have led to many of the same people to stay in power for decades. The people who are running institutions now rose to power when the institutions worked effectively, but now can't work them like they used to. Biden began in the Senate in 1972 when it was run by soft-spoken institutionalist Mike Mansfield -- and now his Build Back Better proposals on taxes and climate are dying there because of one senator with financial ties to the coal industry, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.V.). At times, U.S. politics seems like a battle between one party set on blasting institutions for its political aims (for example, how Mitch McConnell denied Merrick Garland a vote to hold open the Supreme Court seat), versus another party with leadership that doesn't have an appropriate sense of urgency.
Other democracies already have a new generation of leaders. Gabriel Boric of Chile and Sanna Martin of Finland are 36. Zelensky and Emmanuel Macron of France are 44. Canada's Justin Trudeau is 50. Not all of these leaders have been effective -- for example, Macron won re-election by being less hated than his opponent, Marine LePen, while not being particularly liked himself -- but they do seem to have the stamina to be a world leader.
(Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Martin went viral recently for attending a rock festival.)
Presidential fitness can have an impact on world events. In April 1919, President Woodrow Wilson contracted the Spanish flu shortly after arriving in Paris for the peace talks for a post-World War I settlement. He suffered a 103-degree fever, coughing fits, delusions, and according to his chief usher, "was never the same after this little spell of sickness." While Wilson had advocated for a softer peace deal with Germany, he gave into most of the French demands for a more punitive peace deal, which became the infamously harsh Treaty of Versailles. It's too facile to say no flu, no Treaty of Versailles, no Hitler; but Wilson's incapacity is part of the story of how the Treaty of Versailles came to be a reality. Wilson suffered a stroke in October 1919 and was incapacitated for the rest of his presidency -- and the American public never fully knew how ill he was.
Biden is in better shape than Wilson was. Voters have recently faced the specter of an incapacitated president -- Trump has been described by advisers as being "detached from reality" after his 2020 election loss. In 2019, Biden said it was "totally appropriate" for voters to consider his age when evaluating him as a candidate. Soon, they may have the chance to do so.
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