On Sunday, America will witness a unique moment in its history – when the current president turns 80.
Administration aides would certainly like the other big family celebration at the White House this weekend — the wedding of President Joe Biden’s granddaughter Naomi — to grab most of the headlines.
The political sensitivities of having a man in his 80s in the Oval Office mean there isn’t likely to be big news about birthday parties — unlike when President Barack Obama turned 50 while in office and held several parties, including a gathering. Donations for re-election featuring Herbie Hancock and Jennifer Hudson.
Entering his ninth decade, Biden will only lead to fresh speculation about whether he will run for re-election — a decision he says he will make with his family. The president has said he intends to run for a second term, but after a life marred by personal tragedy, he deeply respects fate. Whatever happens, the issue of the president’s health and mental capacity is sure to be at the center of any 2024 campaign — because Republicans will put it out there and because it’s a reasonable concern for voters holding back their commander-in-chief.
Biden’s birthday comes at a time when the issue of age is too old to serve in senior political leadership positions.
On Thursday for example, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, 82, announced that she would step down from the leadership as the Democratic Party moves into the minority in the next Congress.
“For me, it’s time for a new generation to lead the Democratic caucus, which I deeply respect,” Pelosi said in a speech in the hall that felt like a moment ending an era.
After two decades at the helm of her party in the House, Pelosi was doing something essential to democracy’s ability to sustain and renew itself — voluntarily giving up power — an honorable tradition inaugurated by President George Washington when he refused to seek a third term. But Pelosi also implicitly asked whether it was time to hand over power and responsibility to her younger colleagues — is it time for others to do so, too?
After all, the seductive idea of the passing of the generational torch has been a powerful symbol in modern American history—and animated the rise of presidents like John F. Kennedy and Bill Clinton, for example. The poignant truth about American politics is that decisions are being made on issues such as climate change, foreign policy, and health care that will resonate in the decades to come and that top leaders will not live to see.
But the old guard is still in control now.
Two days before Pelosi’s announcement, Donald Trump, a slightly younger political titan, said that at 76 he was far from ready to leave the stage. The former president has launched a campaign to win a new term in the White House that would get him past his 80th birthday if he wins the 2024 election.
In the Senate, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, 80, has resisted an attempt by a younger colleague — Florida Sen. Rick Scott, 69 — to oust him for his leadership position. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, who is celebrating the Democrats’ victory in the midterm elections, which means the party will remain in the House, is a young 71-year-old.
In some ways, the vitality and motivation of older leaders is admirable in an era when many people are retired for a long time — and an example to society that the elderly are just as capable and worthy as the younger generations. The elixir of strength that leads them to endure insults and highlight political life remains a marvel. Biden, for example, who has spent most of his adult life chasing the presidency, just returned from a grueling trip to Egypt and Asia. The journey home on Air Force One alone took 24 hours.
Yet the prominence of the Seventy-Eightysomething at the top of the political tree also raises questions about whether it would be a good idea for younger politicians at this moment in American history not to assume more responsibility or wield more power. There is a sense that neither political party has done a good job grooming more youthful heirs, a scenario that would further create distance between politicians and the younger generations. This could be a particular problem for Democrats since CNN polls in the midterm elections indicate that 55% of the party’s voters are between the ages of 18 and 44. And the majority of GOP voters — 54% — were over 45.
Institutional political traditions are also a hindrance to young people—particularly in Congress where power is built on seniority that takes hard years to accumulate.
However, at the same time, younger politicians may also need to look in the mirror. The reason Biden, Trump, and Pelosi remain the most powerful leaders in the country is because so far no younger, dynamic, history-making figures have emerged from below to force them off the scene. Biden and Trump have battled younger rivals in the presidential primaries and established themselves for their respective voter groups. Pelosi’s skill at keeping her caucus together and the support of Democratic bosses has made her an icon in her party, and aside from a few periods of grumbling at younger subordinates, she has weathered serious leadership challenges.
Here’s one indication of the dearth of up-and-coming talent in the Democratic Party: He was the most active campaigner in the midterm elections from the younger generation—but, having already served two terms in the White House, former President Barack Obama worked to stress the lack of top talent on the Democratic bench.
Meanwhile, Trump may have more to fear from a young protester.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, 44, was born in the 1970s — around the time the newest Republican president was filling the tabloids as he earned a reputation as a New York City wheeler and playboy. (When DeSantis was born in 1978, Biden was already in his second term in the Senate. If Florida’s governor won the Republican nomination and faced Biden in the general election, the president would face the unattractive prospect of standing on the debate stage with a challenger who was nearly half his age.)
Trump’s early announcement of a third presidential campaign this week failed to unite the party around him amid mounting criticism that the former president’s denial of the election was responsible for suppressing the Republican Party’s red wave in the midterm elections. However, Trump’s best hope is that his ardent constituents may see any attempt by DeSantis, who shot for re-election last week, to topple their champion as a betrayal.
That’s one reason DeSantis, who has time on his side, may eventually decide to give the 2024 race a pass. But there are already signs that the post-Trump generation of politicians is eager to take his movement forward.
Former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley, former Vice President Mike Pence, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley, and South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem have all been mentioned as possible heirs to his throne — although there is no indication that the president The ex is ready to part with her.
The Democrats’ better-than-expected performance in the midterms helped ease some questions about Biden’s decision about the re-election race. The lack of clear successors also helps the president’s position.
Democrats worry about Vice President Kamala Harris’ prospects should Biden not stand, after her failure in the 2020 primary and her uneven performance in office over the past two years. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg was the rising star of that campaign, but his path to the Democratic nomination is looking uphill. The midterm elections produced some potential future Democratic candidates – Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer was re-elected and Pennsylvania’s new Governor – Josh Shapiro. But there isn’t exactly a star of a generation like Obama waiting for a rocket to come to power. And there is no reason for Biden to step down because a young, can’t-miss leader is waiting in the wings.
However, this year polls have consistently indicated that Americans are not keen on a Trump vs. Biden rematch. And in midterm polls, only 30% of respondents wanted the president to run for re-election. However, with an approval rating of 40% in these polls, he is slightly more popular than Trump who only has an approval rating of 38% among all voters.
In her speech announcing her departure from leadership Thursday, Pelosi noted, “The Bible teaches that for everything, there is a season.”
However, an epiphany is unlikely to prevent other political leaders of an advanced age from trying to defy time.