The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The presidency should be no office for old men (or women)

President Biden during a White House news conference Jan. 19. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)

Americans are not excited about the prospect of a 2024 presidential election rematch between Joe Biden and Donald Trump. A CNN poll in late July found that three-quarters of Democratic and Democratic-leaning voters wish the party would nominate someone other than Biden, while 55 percent of Republicans and Republican leaners” do not want Trump as their standard-bearer. A New York Times/Siena survey produced similar findings earlier that month.

Yet Trump-Biden II remains a likely scenario — possibly the likeliest. If only the Constitution had the following proviso: “No person who has attained the age of 75 years shall be eligible for election to the Office of President.” That would bar second-term bids by both Biden, 79, and Trump, 76, forcing the country to pass the torch to a new generation, or at least someone born after the 1940s.

Certainly such an amendment would be the most direct route to eliminating the danger of another Trump presidency, far simpler and more certain than trying to disqualify him via the House Jan. 6 committee’s revelations or an indictment. Precluding another four years of Biden would be a small price to pay for a never-Trump guarantee. Who knows? For that worthy objective, Biden himself might agree to sacrifice a shot at reelection.

For now, of course, this is idle speculation. There’s no prospect of such a measure being proposed in Congress, much less getting the necessary two-thirds majority of both houses, plus a majority vote in 38 of 50 state legislatures, for ratification by 2024. (Footnote: Ratification of the 26th Amendment granting 18-year-olds the vote took less than four months in 1971; it was done well ahead of the 1972 election.) No doubt there would be an argument over whether Biden and Trump should be grandfathered in. (Sorry.)

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Sooner or later, though, there should be serious consideration of setting a maximum age at which anyone may be elected president or vice president. Public opinion appears to be moving that way, judging by a recent YouGov poll showing that 58 percent of Americans favor an upper age limit on office-holding generally — 70 years being the most popular number cited.

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This data reflects public awareness that not only Biden but the speaker of the House, 31 senators and two Supreme Court justices are at least 70. Still, gerontocracy is less concerning in collective legislative and judicial bodies than it is in the one-person presidency, where the proverbial buck stops — but official duty never really does.

“Energy in the Executive is a leading character in the definition of good government,” Alexander Hamilton wrote in Federalist No. 70. He wrote these words in defense of the constitutional plan, so they refer to the office’s institutional features, but their clear implication is that an energetic individual should lead the executive branch.

Former president Jimmy Carter would agree. In 2019, a nearly 95-year-old Carter said: “I hope there’s an age limit. … If I were just 80 years old, if I was 15 years younger, I don’t believe I could undertake the duties I experienced when I was president.”

The simple scientific fact is that, on average, human physical and mental capabilities diminish as we age. And the stubborn political fact is that, unlike prime ministers in a parliamentary system, presidents are hard to replace between general elections without a crisis, such as impeachment, or invocation of the 25th Amendment for dealing with presidential disability.

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The obvious objection is that it’s both discriminatory — ageist — and undemocratic categorically to bar a group that made up just over 6 percent of the U.S. population in 2016, according to the Census Bureau. This demographic cohort will only grow as society ages; and it undoubtedly includes individuals who could handle the job. If an elderly candidate wants to run, the argument goes, let the voters judge his or her fitness.

Nevertheless, the fact that the Constitution set a minimum age — 35 — confirms that age per se is a relevant qualification. Yes, ruling out those 75 and older might exclude many capable candidates, but so does ruling out adults 34 and younger.

Setting the maximum at 74 would be actuarially sensible, not arbitrary. Given that risks — illness, injury, cognitive decline — grow with age, and that the presidency requires a full-time, fully capable occupant, the 75-year rule would “de-risk” the office and, by extension, the political system as a whole. To cite a specific advantage: It would render invocation of the 25th Amendment less probable.

When they pegged 35 as the minimum age for the presidency, and 30 and 25 for the Senate and House respectively, the framers enshrined the common wisdom of their era: that public office should be reserved for mature members of the community.

This intuition has aged pretty well. So has the Constitution itself — but only because it has been periodically amended to correct its initial flaws, adapt to new realities and help the system stay forever young.