The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Joe Biden, 78, will lead an American gerontocracy

President-elect Joe Biden will be the oldest president in U.S. history. Some other powerful D.C. figures are older still. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

When he was born, Americans were rationing coffee and bootlegging gasoline. Schoolchildren were salvaging newspaper for the war effort, smearing their hands with ink about Hitler and Hirohito. On the radio, Louis Prima was playing “That Old Black Magic.” In Scranton, Pa., the Junior Catholic Daughters of the Americas were preparing to read “The Song of Bernadette.” And less than a week after baby Joey Biden was brought home from St. Mary’s Hospital, in November 1942, a film premiered in which a jaded nightclub owner steps off the sidelines and back into the fight.

“I’m no good at being noble,” Humphrey Bogart would say to Ingrid Bergman in “Casablanca,” “but it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.”

Joey Biden, stepping back into the fight in January 2021, is now 78 — 78.2, if you want to be actuarial. Technically a late-stage member of the Silent Generation, having been born during World War II, Biden’s experiences are those of the baby boomers: reared by the white-middle-class prosperity of the 1940s and ’50s, challenged in the ’60s by seismic social movements and wars hot and cold, accumulating power and wealth in the ’70s and ’80s as the country careened from Nixon to Reagan, from “Mary Tyler Moore” to “Dallas.”

Biden will be governing with his cohort: Mitch McConnell (Ky.), the top Republican in the Senate, is exactly nine months older than Biden, and Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), the Democratic speaker of the House, is 23 months older than McConnell. The trio has been in federal office for a combined 114 years; they could’ve (should’ve?) retired 15 years ago. But American leadership — and life in general — is an indelicate balance between wisdom and passion, experience and potential, institutions and rebellions. And so Pelosi re-grips the gavel, McConnell prepares to battle another Democratic administration, and for the second time in four years America inaugurates its oldest-ever president — and during a once-in-a-century pandemic that is especially perilous for senior citizens.

Naturally, if perhaps unfairly, our thoughts turn to his health. A nation of nephews, nieces and grandkids asks: Is pop-pop okay?

“Watch me,” Biden has responded to doubts about his dewiness, and we have. We’ve scrutinized every skin blotch, every frog in the throat, every momentary lapse in speech (as if such lapses aren’t common at any age). The incoming 46th president has had two aneurysms, deep-vein thrombosis and a pulmonary embolism. He has had surgery on his prostate; his gallbladder was removed in 2003. In 2008 he had mild diverticulosis and a noncancerous tubular adenoma removed. The 46th president’s medicine cabinet has recently included Eliquis (an anticoagulant), Crestor (for cholesterol), Nexium (for gastroesophageal reflux) and Dymista (for allergies).

None of this is concerning, according to doctors who assessed Biden’s health for the Journal on Active Aging. This is just what it means to be a man of 78.2 in the last quarter of a well-heeled life. The doctors estimate that Biden has a 95.2 percent chance of surviving his four-year term. He “has an exceptional health profile for a man his age,” their report said, though “it is our conclusion that chronological age is not a relevant factor” in choosing a president.

Maybe not relevant but apparent from the start.

“Pass the torch,” Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.), then 38, said to Biden during a primary debate in June 2019.

“I’m still holding on to that torch,” Biden replied, flashing a mouthful of vibrant teeth, sounding like a black-and-white movie star surrounded by Technicolor upstarts.

Swalwell dropped out of the race 10 days later. Then, as he secured the nomination in 2020, Biden called himself a “transition candidate.”

The transition isn’t happening very fast in Congress. In 2019, American millennials overtook the boomers in population, but the Congress sworn in this month has only 31 millennials compared with a combined 335 members of the baby-boom and Silent Generation, according to the Hill. And the U.S. electorate is getting older: The median age among registered voters increased from 44 in 1996 to 50 in 2019, according to Pew Research Center.

Longer tenures and overrepresentation of elders in government result from voters strongly preferring experienced politicians, according to political scientists Raul Magni-Berton and Sophie Panel. Older citizens tend to vote more, and they vote for peers who are attuned to their specific interests.

In democracies around the world, “gerontocracy has a bright future,” Magni-Berton and Panel wrote in the journal Sociology Compass last year.

But in the United States, as many members of Generation Z (born after 1996) reached voting age last year, the youth vote between 2016 and 2020 ballooned by about 11 percent. This demographic (particularly voters of color) was crucial to Biden winning Arizona, Georgia, Michigan and Pennsylvania, according to Tufts University’s Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement.

In other words: The youngest voters helped elect the oldest president ever.

During the 2020 primary, Biden was nowhere near the first choice for Evan Weber, 29, co-founder and political director of the youth-led Sunrise Movement. Like most other Democratic voters under 30, he preferred a candidate even older than Biden: Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), born three days after “Citizen Kane” was released and three months before the United States entered World War II. But age and experience do not equal stodgy institutionalism, Weber says, if a leader’s ideas are fresh, relevant and passionate.

The Biden campaign built a bigger youth-engagement arm than the Hillary Clinton campaign in 2016, Weber says, and created a Biden-Sanders “unity task force” to bridge the differences between wings of the Democratic Party.

“It wasn’t perfect, but it represented listening and progress in a really substantial way,” says Weber, who is also pleased with Biden’s climate policy hires. “I think that in itself is a form of wisdom: not just accruing knowledge but listening and being able to take in new perspectives and information.”

To adapt, in other words, as time goes by.