Is Biden too old to be in office or run again? Plus, a question about the Supreme Court.

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, ad-free, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day — then “my take.”

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Today's read: 12 minutes.

Is Biden too old to be in office or run again? Plus, a question about the Supreme Court.

Image: Gage Skidmore / Flickr
Image: Gage Skidmore / Flickr 

Quick hits.

  1. The PGA tour is now under Department of Justice investigation for potential antitrust violations in its competition with the new Saudi Arabia backed LIV Golf. (The investigation)
  2. The Food and Drug administration says it is considering an application from a French pharmaceutical company for what would be the first over-the-counter birth control medication available in the U.S. (The application)
  3. The House Jan. 6 Committee will hold its seventh public hearing today, focusing on the role domestic extremist groups played in the day's events. (The hearing)
  4. Russia says Vladimir Putin will visit Iran next week, and the White House said it is expecting Iran to provide Russia with weapons-capable drones for use in Ukraine. (The visit)
  5. New CDC estimates indicate that Omicron BA.5, a more contagious subvariant, is already the dominant strain in the U.S. Hospitalizations are up 4.5% this week. (The estimates)

Our 'Quick Hits' section is created in partnership with Ground News, a website and app that rates the bias of news coverage and news outlets.


Today's topic.

President Joe Biden's age. President Biden, who is now 79, became the oldest president in U.S. history to be elected when he was voted into office. He will be 82 at the end of his first term, and if he is re-elected and finishes a second term, he'd be 86 when he leaves office.

The question of Biden's age has been around since his campaign began in 2019 (I wrote a Friday edition about it a year ago), as have allegations of a cognitive decline by critics. But there has been an extra surge of commentary on the issue after several stories about the topic were published by news outlets over the last few months, including in The New York Times in June and then again in a front page story published just yesterday. In that piece, The Times quoted several sources noting that the topic had become an increasingly uncomfortable one for Biden's team and the Democratic party:

In interviews, some sanctioned by the White House and some not, more than a dozen current and former senior officials and advisers uniformly reported that Mr. Biden remained intellectually engaged, asking smart questions at meetings, grilling aides on points of dispute, calling them late at night, picking out that weak point on Page 14 of a memo and rewriting speeches like his abortion remarks on Friday right up until the last minute.

But they acknowledged Mr. Biden looks older than just a few years ago, a political liability that cannot be solved by traditional White House stratagems like staff shake-ups or new communications plans. His energy level, while impressive for a man of his age, is not what it was then, and some aides quietly watch out for him. He often shuffles when he walks, and aides worry he will trip on a wire. He stumbles over words during public events, and they hold their breath to see if he makes it to the end without a gaffe...

Mr. Biden’s public appearances have fueled that perception. His speeches can be flat and listless. He sometimes loses his train of thought, has trouble summoning names or appears momentarily confused. More than once, he has promoted Vice President Kamala Harris, calling her “President Harris.” Mr. Biden, who overcame a childhood stutter, stumbles over words like “kleptocracy.”

He has said Iranian when he meant Ukrainian and several times called Senator Mark Warner, Democrat of Virginia, “John,” confusing him with the late Republican senator of that name from Virginia... the White House has had to walk back some of his ad-libbed comments, such as when he vowed a military response if China attacks Taiwan or declared that President Vladimir V. Putin “cannot remain in power” in Russia.

Along with The Times piece, Republican political ads regularly feature Biden stumbling over words or appearing to lose his train of thought. Over the weekend, a new Siena College / New York Times poll revealed that 64% of Democrats want someone other than Biden to run in 2024.

Today, we're going to explore some arguments from the right and left about Biden's age and the potential that he runs again in 2024. Then I'll share my take.


What the right is saying.

  • The right says it is finally not taboo to talk about Biden's age.
  • Many say his cognitive decline has been obvious for some time.
  • Some argue there should be an age cap on who can be president.

In June, The Wall Street Journal editorial board wrote about "breaking the age taboo."

"A pastime around our office in early 2021 was guessing when Democrats would begin to point out that President Biden was too old for the job and should pack it in," the board wrote. "The consensus was after a drubbing in the midterm election, but congrats to the colleague (he knows who he is) who figured sometime early this year. He wins the office pool because the drive to shove the President out the door has already begun. The New York Times kicked off the kicking with a story quoting various progressive sages suddenly admitting what everyone has known all along: Mr. Biden is the oldest serving U.S. President at age 79, and he’ll be 82 when he finishes his term. He looks and sounds every bit his age.

"This declaration of the obvious has now moved along the progressive media chorus line to the Atlantic, with a piece that asserts 'Let me put this bluntly: Joe Biden should not run for re-election in 2024. He is too old.' These stories treat this as a revelation, as if Mr. Biden suddenly showed some dramatic decline," the board wrote. "The truth is that the President demonstrated he had lost a verbal, and maybe mental, step in the first Democratic candidate debate in 2019. He hasn’t improved. Democrats admitted it privately at the time, but they rallied to him during the South Carolina primary when it looked like he was the only Democrat who could hold off the nomination of Bernie Sanders and defeat Donald Trump... Why the Democratic turn now? One obvious answer is that the President is down in the polls, and his low approval rating may cost Democrats control of Congress in November."

In The Washington Examiner, Byron York said "of course Biden is too old" to be president.

"Anyone who has seen a video or two of Biden at presidential functions would say the same thing," York said. "The point is not that some of the Republican attacks on Biden were true. No, Biden did not have dementia, as some of his adversaries said. He was not disoriented, not knowing where he was. Those were hit jobs from people who clearly did not watch Biden participate in 11 Democratic debates. (He got through them all — he wasn't very good, but he wasn't very good 20 years ago, either.) The point was that Biden was inexorably slowing down and was increasingly not up to the most demanding job in the world.

"At this point, it is inevitable that some on Twitter will say: 'Now do Trump.' If former President Donald Trump were to be elected to a second term, he would take office in 2025 at age 78 — the same age Biden was when he became president in 2021," York wrote. "Trump would serve until age 82. So if serving between the ages of 78 and 82 is too old for Biden, wouldn't it be too old for Trump? The answer is yes, it would. Now, the Trump of today — he just turned 76 last week — is much more vigorous-appearing than Biden. If you watched one of Trump's rallies, you would see a high-energy performance that goes on somewhere between an hour and an hour and a half. Trump appears to be infinitely stronger and more energetic than Biden. But age is coming for Trump, just as it did for Biden."

In Deseret, William Titera said there should be an age maximum on the presidency.

"There are few things that both Democrats and Republicans might agree on, but one of those may be the merit of also providing a constitutionally mandated upper age limit," he wrote. "Only 38% still approve of Joe Biden’s performance. Many believe he is too old for the job. Others believe that Donald Trump is unfit for office and would gladly support any measure that would limit his eligibility to run in 2024. According to a poll conducted earlier this year by ABC News and The Washington Post, 54% of Americans do not believe Biden has the 'mental sharpness it takes to serve effectively as president.'

"Age does not discriminate based on whether there is a D or R by one’s name. All are susceptible to the effects of aging. Fortunately, some seniors remain quite sharp mentally, and may even improve in wisdom and insight. But that is the exception, not the rule. Given the increased likelihood of age-related issues, shouldn’t there be a constitutional age limit for the president?" Titera asked. "So how old is too old? That depends on the individual, but it is noteworthy to consider what the government says about retirement age. The Federal Aviation Administration mandates that pilots retire by age 65. Currently, the full retirement age for Social Security is 66."


What the left is saying.

  • The left defends Biden's cognitive state, but many argue he should step aside in 2024.
  • Some criticize the "smear campaigns" by Republicans.
  • Others say this is a real issue for voters, not just a media-concocted story.

In The Atlantic, Mark Leibovich said Biden is fit to be president right now, but is too old to run again.

"It all feels impolite to point this out—disrespectful, ageist, and taboo, especially given the gross Republican smears about Biden being a doddering and demented old puppet," Leibovich said. "No one wants to perpetuate this garbage. In fact, people who have had regular contact with Biden describe him as engaged with the day-to-day aspects of his job and generally sharp on details. He will sometimes mangle sentences, blank on names, get tortured by teleprompters, lose his train of thought, or not make sense—which is not so abnormal for someone his age... Biden is by no means the more eloquent character he was in his younger days. It can be painful to watch him give prepared speeches. His tone can be tentative, and certain sentences can become hopscotching journeys. His aides in the room look visibly nervous at times.

"Biden worked to overcome a stutter during his youth, and in general it can become more difficult for stutterers to conceal these effects as they age," he said. "Geriatricians are always emphasizing that the effects of aging vary widely from person to person. By every indication, Biden appears to be among the lucky ones. His doctors cite no major health concerns. He takes care of himself. He does not drink or smoke, is not overweight, and works out at least five times a week. He looks great for a guy his age. Biden is fit to faithfully execute his duties, the White House physician said in his most recent health summary. The question is: Should he? The answer: Sure, for now. But not a day after January 20, 2025."

In The New York Times, Michelle Goldberg said he is too old to run again.

"I can’t help feeling very sorry for Joe Biden," Goldberg said. "He’s wanted to be president for most of his life, first running 34 years ago. Had his son Beau not died in 2015, Biden might have entered the Democratic primary then; as vice president he would have been a favorite and likely would have beaten Donald Trump. By the time he finally achieved the office he longed for, he was far past his prime. Trump had left the country in ruins, its institutions collapsing, much of the population gripped by furious delusions, and millions traumatized by the pandemic. Biden was elected to bring back a normality that now appears to be gone for good.

"Now, I didn’t want Biden to be the Democratic nominee in 2020, partly for ideological reasons but even more because he seemed too worn-out and unfocused," Goldberg wrote. “In retrospect, however, given the way Republicans outperformed expectations, Biden may have been the only one of the major candidates who could have beaten Trump; voters showed no appetite for sweeping progressive change. So I recognize that I could be wrong when I make a similar argument today. But the presidency ages even young men, and Biden is far from young; a country in as much trouble as ours needs a leader vigorous enough to inspire confidence."

In CNN, Chris Cillizza said the question is catching up to him.

"A New York Times/Siena College poll released Monday showed that 64% of voters planning to participate in the 2024 Democratic presidential primary said they want the party to nominate a candidate other than Biden," Cillizza wrote. "Among the youngest voters (ages 18-29) in that group, a critical part of the party's coalition, just 5% -- not a typo -- want the party to renominate Biden. Asked for a reason for why they would prefer someone other than Biden, 33% of Democratic primary voters cited his age, while 32% said his job performance. Among Biden's rough age cohort -- those 65 and over -- 60% said age was the main reason they wanted Democrats to nominate someone other than the President.

"Those are striking numbers that speak to the fact that this isn't just a summer story being driven by the media. It's a legitimate concern for voters -- even those who are favorably inclined to the party to which Biden belongs," Cillizza wrote. "Biden himself, during the course of the 2020 campaign, acknowledged that voters should consider his age as they made up their minds about their vote. The question of how big of an issue Biden's age will wind up being for voters if he runs in 2024 remains to be seen -- and could be dependent on whether Republicans nominate someone who can drive that contrast with Biden or not. At present, the leading Republican presidential contender is Donald Trump, who, at 76, is no spring chicken."


My take.

When I wrote about this last year, I said plainly what I thought was obvious: Joe Biden looked markedly different than he did just five (now six) years ago. All you have to do is watch videos of Biden from 2016 to see the obvious.

When I wrote that piece, I also predicted many of the arguments that landed in my inbox: Accusations that I'm an ageist (even though most Democrats Biden's age also think he's too old), hollow counter-points like "you're not a doctor" or "you're not his doctor," and pivots to "have you seen Trump?"

My counterpoint to accusations of ageism is that there are plenty of people of Biden's age who I don't feel similarly about. Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-VT) is a year older than Biden, and he just debated with Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) on Fox News. He looked a lot sharper to me than the president does now, even though Biden also held his own in the debates against Trump. My grandmother died a couple years ago at the age of 97, and I would have put her in Congress over some of the folks we've got now — she was sharp as ever until the very end. In other words: Age is not my issue, and I don't think I'd even support an age cap unless it was very high (north of 85).

Since I don't make endorsements in Tangle, all of this creates some tricky waters to navigate. But here's something I feel comfortable saying: The odds-on favorites for 2024 are the same as in 2020 (Biden and Trump). For a number of reasons, including both their ages and unpopularity, I don't think either of them should run.

I also reject the idea that we should let the uncomfortable nature of the topic prevent us from discussing it honestly. As Cillizza noted in his piece, Biden himself has made it crystal clear he appreciates and desires an open conversation about his age — and in return he aims to be transparent about his health. That's honorable, and it's the kind of thing that made him a popular candidate in 2020. As voters or onlookers or journalists or pundits, we should embrace the fact that the very subject of these conversations does not view them as taboo.

So, yes, I think Biden is going to be too old to run in 2024. I don't think that means he can't fulfill his duties as president now, and I don't think there is really any debate about it. None of that means we should have an age cap in Congress or the White House, but it does mean voters should be able to discuss this openly without being accused of crossing some imaginary line.

Anyone who cares about the country can look at some of the public appearances Biden has had and wonder if he's lost his fastball — too tired or too old or too overwhelmed to be an effective communicator and leader. I certainly have, and I think the numerous articles about concerns from staff and allies just affirm what's clear from watching him from afar.

Have thoughts about "my take?" You don't have to agree — just reply to this email and write in. If you're a paid subscriber, you can leave a comment.


Your questions, answered.

Q: Do you agree that SCOTUS appears to be focused on forcing the Congress to do its job of writing nitty-gritty detailed law rather than allowing activist courts (as in Roe v. Wade) to create controversial law, or the bureaucracy to to implement noxious or at least unpopular regulations in-place of law in implementing some benign sounding act (as in the EPA’s implementation of Clean Air Act).

Do you agree that Congress frequently passes the buck to the courts or the bureaucracy when its honorable members do not want to go on record as being for or against some policy or program written to redress some intractable public issue?

— Jim, Eagle River, Alaska

Tangle: We have done entire 4,000 to 5,000 word individual editions on many of the recent rulings, so I’m reluctant to broad brush or generalize here. And I would definitely refer to my writing on those individual rulings for a nuanced sense of where I stand, personally.

That being said, I do think it is true that Congress has abdicated its duty on a lot of huge issues, and that the Supreme Court's recent spate of rulings has at times collided with that abdication. For a lot of Americans, I think the recent rulings have been a bit of a civics lesson. The court's job is not to rule in favor of the majority of the public's will — it's to be a check on democracy. It is, quite literally, to make sure that the people don't elect leaders who create laws that violate the Constitution.

So, in that sense, yes: I agree that Congress frequently passes the buck and that the courts are left having to resolve very complicated questions that better legislation could resolve without them. That being said, I also think it's fair to note that the court has its own "law" in some respects, like stare decisis (precedent). It's easy to see why critics might be upset that someone like Justice Brett Kavanaugh voted to strike down Roe v. Wade just a couple of years after giving assurances that he viewed it as a strong precedent. Many legal experts have noted that Kavanaugh was careful in his “lawyerly phrasing” to leave the door open to overturning it, but Republican senators like Lisa Murkowski and Susan Collins also made it clear that they felt betrayed.

Remember, Supreme Court justices are nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate, which means they are — like legislation — a product of the democratic process. When the public (or members of Congress) feel they are being misled in confirmation hearings, or traditions are ignored in order to place them on the bench, that creates a whole domino effect of legitimacy questions. Which then produces the low trust in the court we have today.

So, yes: Congress is deeply dysfunctional and we are learning now that much of American life is held up by tenuous court rulings, not complex and deeply affirmed legislation. But the court will always have its own motivations when interpreting the law and Constitution, and the justices we have will always be the product of a deeply political process.

Want to ask a question? You can reply to this email and write in (it goes straight to my inbox) or fill out this form.


A story that matters.

I had never seen this study before, but it was sent to me yesterday and I thought it was important to share, especially for Tangle readers. In 2018, the University of Chicago published a study that illustrates exactly how badly Americans misunderstand the major political parties. For instance, the study found that people believe 32% of Democrats are lesbian, gay or bisexual, when the actual number is 6%. It also found that people think 36% of Democrats are black, when 24% are. On the other side, the study found that people believe 38% of Republicans earn more than $250,000 per year (the actual number is 2%), and that 45% of Republicans are over the age of 65 when just 21% are.

"Experimental data suggest that these misperceptions are genuine and party specific, not artifacts of expressive responding, innumeracy, or ignorance of base rates," the researchers report. "These misperceptions are widely shared, though bias in out-party perceptions is larger."


Numbers.

  • 78 years and 61 days. President Biden's age when he took office in 2021, the oldest of any president.
  • 70 years and 220 days. President Trump's age when he took office in 2017, the second-oldest of any president.
  • 42 years and 322 days. Theodore Roosevelt's age when he took office in 1901 (after President McKinley was assassinated), the youngest of any president.
  • 8 billion. The size of the world population by November 15, according to a new United Nations estimate.
  • 9.7 billion. The size of the world population by 2050, according to that same estimate.
  • One in six. The number of calls to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline that end without reaching a counselor, according to The Wall Street Journal.

Have a nice day.

Today, NASA is unveiling the first batch of full-color scientific images taken by its James Webb Space Telescope. Yesterday, President Biden unveiled the first of those images, which shows SMACS 0723 — a massive group of galaxies clustered together that act as a magnifying glass for the objects behind them. This is known as gravitational lensing, and allowed the telescope to capture its first view of the incredibly distant galaxies that have never been seen before — some appearing as they did 4.6 billion years ago. "This slice of the vast universe covers a patch of sky approximately the size of a grain of sand held at arm's length by someone on the ground," according to a NASA release. Here is the image, via NASA:


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Isaac Saul
I'm a politics reporter who grew up in Bucks County, PA — one of the most politically divided counties in America. I'm trying to fix the way we consume political news.

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