Age and the US Government

A pandemic and a government populated with people in their 70s and 80s.

Since the irresponsible behavior of the President of the United States has placed us in the position of thinking about things like succession, let me make a narrow observation. For a variety of reasons, we find ourselves at the mercy of the fact that our government is populated by persons of advanced age.

I am not trying to make an ageist argument here, as I am not going to argue that age itself makes people incapable. But the reality is that persons of advanced age face challenges, on balance, that persons of younger ages tend not to face–especially when it comes to things like dealing with Covid-19.

In thinking about the current path of succession in the US it goes like this:

  1. President Trump, 74
  2. Vice President Pence, 61
  3. Speaker of the House Pelosi, 80
  4. President Pro Tempore of the Senate Charles E. Grassley, 87

In that group, Pence’s age sticks out for both his relative youth, but specifically because he is the only person under standard retirement age on this list.

Fun fact: according to the World Bank, life expectancy in the US is 78.54 years of age.

This all becomes especially salient at the moment, given that we are thinking about succession not in the context of war or even some kind of catastrophic accident, but in the context of a pandemic. It is not unusual for the four persons above to be at the same events, or even in the same small room (although it is noteworthy that Trump and Pelosi have not met face to face for roughly a year). But even when all four are not together, the degrees of separation between them is small. How many people at the Amy Coney Barrett event subsequently came into contact with Grassley, for example?

And, speaking of the ACB announcement and age, the reason there was such an occasion was because of the passing of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, at the age of 87.

How much of the current situation would have been mitigated if, like basically all other democracies, we had either mandatory retirement ages for high court judges and/or fixed terms?

Note, too, the Democratic nominee for president, Joe Biden, is 77 and will be the oldest president to start a first term should he win the election (beating the current record-holder, Trump, who started office at 70). Several of his main rivals for the nomination, notably Sanders (79) and Warren (71), were also septuagenarians.

Of course, the last three presidents were under 60 when they started their terms, Clinton (46), Bush (54), and Obama (47), so perhaps we are just at an anomalous moment as it pertains to the presidency. I have critiques about the candidate selection process, but I can think of nothing that specifically that would affect the issue of age (although more party elite control would likely decrease the chance of someone in their late 70s getting selected).

On balance, I do not have a comprehensive solution on this issue. Indeed, I am not even sure precisely how to define the problem, per se. That is, there is nothing inherently wrong with a specific person of advanced age being in office. But at some point, the accumulation of such creates the possibility of a crisis, especially in a pandemic.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2020, Donald Trump, Joe Biden, US Politics
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter

Comments

  1. drj says:

    although more party elite control would likely decrease the chance of someone in their late 70s getting selected

    While this seems likely, I suspect that because US party institutions are weak, personal power and patronage networks are more important than in most other western democracies.

    One would expect to find well-connected, multi-term incumbents at the center of these more personal power networks. Naturally, this selects for age.

    This also normalizes the relatively advanced age of outsiders such as Trump.

    Of course, this doesn’t mean that younger individuals are necessarily locked out of power, but it also doesn’t seem coincidental that George Bush had Cheney, and Obama had Biden to connect them to more established party and Congressional power networks.

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  2. I think I’ve mentioned to you before that I would like to see parties exercise a bit more control over nomination, even as the trend has been for them to exercise less.

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  3. Scott F. says:

    Indeed, I am not even sure precisely how to define the problem, per se.

    Ego and thirst for power? Whatever happened to quiet retirement in material comfort as a reward for a life well lived?

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  4. Michael Reynolds says:

    Washington was 57 when inaugurated. Lincoln was 52. FDR was 51.

    Of course medical science and yada yada, and individuals vary. I’m 66, in better shape than I should be, BP under control, overweight but not obese, damn little exercise, no cigs, plenty of booze. If I’m not elected in 2024 – which seems unlikely – I expect by age 70 to be getting close to my sell-by date. I’m still work-driven but every now and then I get glimpses of a life where I’m just chilling in some outdoor cafe in Portugal or Provence or Paris, drinking coffee in the morning, wine by day and Scotch by night, and simply being amused by life.

    The issue is less intellectual capability or even energy, but which direction you’re looking. Your perspective, indeed your brain’s storage, becomes more full of the past, less forward-looking. There’s a sweet spot in there somewhere, when you have a nice balance of history and experience on one hand, and optimism and anticipation on the other. But when you are in your 70’s you know, unless you’re in deep denial, that you’re looking at another decade if you’re lucky.

    Bump retirement age up to 75, just to be generous, and I’m in. Elect no president who’ll be over 75 by the end of her first term.

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  5. gVOR08 says:

    The really depressing thing about your list is it shows Pence has another fifteen years or so to weasel his way, greased with Koch money, into the White House.

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  6. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @gVOR08: True, but at least Pence won’t be Trump and that will make the kids in cages, pointless wars on drugs, endless tax cuts for the rich, foreign policy debacles, voter suppression, police violence all worthwhile and purposeful.

  7. James Joyner says:

    Of course, the last three presidents were under 60 when they started their terms, Clinton (46), Bush (54), and Obama (47)

    I never cease to be amazed that we have had four Baby Boomers in a row—three of whom were born in 1946 and which were elected in reverse order of age. Which is to say: Bill Clinton is slightly younger than GW Bush who is slightly younger than Donald Trump now. And, unless something drastic happens, four Boomers in a row are about to be followed by a Silent–born before any of them.

    Also, it only occurred to me this morning that Trump could have infected Biden at the debate and it wind up being Biden, not Trump, who dies as a result. I think it unlikely but Biden is not out of the woods yet despite the negative tests thus far.

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  8. Sleeping Dog says:

    One thing that HoR R’s do right, is term limits for committee chairs. It does provide an incentive to retire rather than become a back bencher on a committee.

    We do need a mandatory retirement age for Federal offices.

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  9. @James Joyner:

    Also, it only occurred to me this morning that Trump could have infected Biden at the debate and it wind up being Biden, not Trump, who dies as a result. I think it unlikely but Biden is not out of the woods yet despite the negative tests thus far.

    This occurred to me as well. And no, he isn’t out of the woods yet, as it can take up to seven days (as I understand it) for the infection to be detected after exposure.

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  10. Mu Yixiao says:

    I know that this wasn’t your intent, but this post comes across as saying “anyone over 60 should be put out to pasture–they have no value”.

    This is one more area where the US contradicts the rest of the world. Most cultures value their elders and look to them for their experience and the wisdom they’ve gained from it.

    Here? You’re old! GtFO!

    My father in his mid 80s would have been a far better president that I would be in my mid 50s.

    As long as their mind is sharp, I don’t care if a president is strapped into an iron lung. You might disagree with FDR’s policies (I know I do quite a bit), but you can’t deny that he was a strong leader–despite being physically weak.

    Fun fact: according to the World Bank, life expectancy in the US is 78.54 years of age.

    Without seeing the source for that stat, I’m going to assume that’s “life expectancy at birth” rather than “life expectancy at a given age”. The “at birth” stat is incredibly misleading, because it includes childhood deaths (disease and accidents) and “young” deaths (accidents and violence).

    Upper-class white persons in their 70s are not expected to die before they reach 80. They’re expected to live well into their late 80s, 90s, or even past 100.

    I’d rather have the highly experienced “Sleepy Joe” at 77 than some “healthy ox” at 40 who doesn’t have experience (both in life and in politics).

  11. @Mu Yixiao:

    I know that this wasn’t your intent, but this post comes across as saying “anyone over 60 should be put out to pasture–they have no value”.

    While I appreciate you acknowledging that wasn’t my intent, I think you are still giving me a rather unfair reading.

    I go out of my way several times to note having a person of a certain age in a position is not my complaint. My complaint is that there is something rather obviously problematic to have this many persons of advanced age in these positions all at the same time (especially if the president is going to be as irresponsible as he has been).

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  12. @Mu Yixiao:

    Without seeing the source for that stat, I’m going to assume that’s “life expectancy at birth” rather than “life expectancy at a given age”. The “at birth” stat is incredibly misleading, because it includes childhood deaths (disease and accidents) and “young” deaths (accidents and violence).

    Upper-class white persons in their 70s are not expected to die before they reach 80. They’re expected to live well into their late 80s, 90s, or even past 100.

    You are correct.

    I’d rather have the highly experienced “Sleepy Joe” at 77 than some “healthy ox” at 40 who doesn’t have experience (both in life and in politics).

    True, but I never said that 40 year-olds were automatically better than 70 year-olds.

    Again, I think you are being extremely uncharitable in your reading of the post.

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  13. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: I suspect that he’s just being “the thoughtful contrarian” in the mold (in more ways than one) of our former James Pearce (sp?). I might be wrong, but that’s my take on him.

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  14. Kurtz says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    If I’m not elected in 2024

    I’ll try to get you signatures in Florida, dude. @Jim Brown could help to swing Georgia Blue.

    😉

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  15. Kurtz says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker:

    I suspect that he’s just being “the thoughtful contrarian” in the mold (in more ways than one) of our former (sp?). I might be wrong, but that’s my take on him.

    Is that the guy who expressed the desire to not be mentioned anymore? Or was that someone else who was banned?

  16. @Kurtz: He has never been banned and is a thoughtful commenter (although he can be a contrarian on occasion 😉

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  17. Jax says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: Even he-who-shall-not-be-named-as-per-his-request was a relatively interesting commenter, at first. Things changed after Trump. I always wondered if people responded to him so negatively because of his avatar. I remember him posting under Herb, as well, and the responses to his comments weren’t quite as negative. But it really all went to hell after Trump. :-/

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  18. An Interested Party says:

    How much of the current situation would have been mitigated if, like basically all other democracies, we had either mandatory retirement ages for high court judges and/or fixed terms?

    How much of the current economic situation would have been mitigated if, like basically all other democracies, we had a fairer and more equitable taxation and redistribution system? Seems like particularly in this country, among all democracies, the powerful and the wealthy use just about any method they can to keep what they have and, more importantly, are continually allowed to get away with it…

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  19. David S. says:

    @Mu Yixiao: As someone from a culture that values its elders, I can tell you that my father would make a much worse president than I would, and I’d be pretty bad at it. While I do agree that the American fetish for youth is a little overdone, it would be much better for there to be a roster of former office holders dispensing advice based on their storied experiences than for them to be taking on the burden of making decisions for people who they fundamentally cannot represent.

    If you look only to the elders to steer the ship, then their children never grow up, even when they are 50 years old. Or 70, in Trump’s case.

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