Jimmy Carter: 80 Too Old for Presidents

The oldest living former President has some reflections on age and the strains of the office.

The 39th President of the United States has a sharp message for those seeking to replace the 45th.

Weeks shy of his 95th birthday, former President Jimmy Carter said he doesn’t believe he could have managed the most powerful office in the world at 80 years old.

One might be inclined to note that he didn’t manage it all that well in his early 50s but that would be unkind. And, in hindsight, unfair.

Nor, incidentally, was this a calculated shot at the current field.

Carter, who earlier this year became the longest-lived chief executive in American history, didn’t tie his comments to any of his fellow Democrats running for president in 2020, but two leading candidates, Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders, would turn 80 during their terms if elected.

Biden is 76. Sanders is 78.

“I hope there’s an age limit,” Carter said with a laugh as he answered audience questions on Tuesday during his annual report at the Carter Center in Atlanta. “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.”

Carter’s observation came in response to a jovial inquiry about whether he had considered running in 2020 since he’s still constitutionally allowed another term.

Carter was elected before my 11th birthday. I’m now older than he was when he was inaugurated. And, all kidding about his administration aside, I think he’s right here.

An interesting factoid:

The 39th president left office in 1981 at the age of 56 after losing his reelection bid to Ronald Reagan, who served two terms and left office as the oldest sitting president in history, at 77.

Either Biden or Sanders would be older upon their inauguration than Reagan was on his final day in the Oval Office. At 73, President Donald Trump is a record setter, as well. He eclipsed Reagan’s mark as the oldest newly elected president in history and would become the oldest president to be reelected. Age has been a flashpoint for some critics of Trump, Sanders and Biden. [emphasis added]

As well it should be. While there may well be “super-agers” who maintain their energy and mental agility well into their old age—hell, Carter himself is clearly among them—it’s not the way to bet.

Carter, who turns 95 on Oct. 1, said the Oval Office requires a president “to be very flexible with your mind,” particularly on foreign affairs. He was speaking on the 41st anniversary of the Camp David Accords, a peace agreement he negotiated with Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin.

“You have to be able to go from one subject to another and concentrate on each one adequately and then put them together in a comprehensive way, like I did between Begin and Sadat with the peace agreement,” Carter said.

“The things I faced in foreign affairs, I don’t think I could undertake them at 80 years old,” he continued, before adding with a smile: “At 95, it’s out of the question. I’m having a hard time walking.”

Now, of course, we already have ample evidence that Donald Trump can’t meet these demands now. Whether it’s a function of age, attention span, or something else is impossible to say from this vantage point. But one would certainly prefer a President in their 50s or 60s to one in their 70s or 80s, all things being equal.

As you know, one votes for the candidates one has, not the candidates you might want or wish to have at a later time.

Carter said he remains undecided in the 2020 primary.

“I’m going to keep an open mind,” he said, explaining that he wants to vote for a candidate who pledges to make the U.S. the world’s leading champion for peace, human rights and equality. “One of the major factors I will have in my mind is who can beat Trump,” he added, noting that he’ll vote for the Democratic nominee in the general election regardless.

It’s still early in the contest but it’s looking all the world like a choice between Biden and Elizabeth Warren. I think either can beat Trump—but he could beat either of them, too.

In an ideal world, the Democrats would be better off with a younger candidate, preferably a moderate governor from a traditionally red state. Someone like Jimmy Carter in 1976 or Bill Clinton in 1992. But none of those who offered themselves up caught on and all of them have either dropped out of the race or failed to qualify for the most recent debate.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2020, US Politics
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Teve says:

    When Liz Warren’s second term ends on January 20th, 2029, she’ll be 79 years, 6 months, and 29 days old.

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  2. SC_Birdflyte says:

    Given the amount of power the President wields, and the complexity of the challenges a President will face, perhaps we should require all candidates to submit to testing for mental agility, capacity for flexibility in thinking, etc.

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  3. James Joyner says:

    @Teve: I don’t know that she’s electable but she is indeed far younger than the other plausible nominees (including Trump). And, as a woman, she’s got a longer wear-out date.

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  4. Kit says:

    In an ideal world, the Democrats would be better off with a younger candidate, preferably a moderate governor from a traditionally red state.

    James, do you really think that the serious problems currently ailing the country, along with the significant challenges looming ahead, can be met by a moderate Democrat? At this stage, the very idea strikes me as (I’ll be tactful) wishful thinking. Today’s Republican party and everything it stands for must be smashed, and it’s simply not in the nature of a centrist to undertake such action.

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  5. James Joyner says:

    @Kit: I started a comment here but I think a new post is in order instead.

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  6. Kit says:

    @James Joyner: That’s fair enough, James! I felt I was off topic, even if you did bring it up 🙂

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  7. Hal_10000 says:

    @SC_Birdflyte:

    My concern is less their mental and physical fitness right now — you can’t survive a Presidential campaign if you’re in bad shape — than the possibility that things could go very bad very fast. My grandfather, at age 78, was mentally sharp and physically sound … until a stroke almost killed him. My other grandfather was mentally sharp and physically sounds … until a heart attack. Sometimes aging is a gradual fall. And sometimes it’s a cliff.

    This does make the choice of Vice President much more important, though and I’ve been thinking about where that might go. Biden, I think, would go with Harris (assuming she doesn’t beclown herself even further). Not sure who Warren would pick.

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  8. Bill says:

    @Hal_10000: Sometimes aging is a gradual fall. And sometimes it’s a cliff.That’s very true.

    Two years ago we were without electric for 5 days after Hurricane Irma. A friend and co-worker of my wife invited me and Leonita to stay with her (Ironically in the very same community where Dear Wife and I live now) until our power was restored. Her name was Maria and she had gotten her electric back a little over a day after losing it.

    Maria was in early 70’s and told people she had never had to stay overnight in a hospital her entire adult life. About two months after Irma, Maria got ill with some gastrointestinal problem. She spent 4 months in either a hospital or nursing home before passing away. Past age 70 your health can change very fast.

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  9. SC_Birdflyte says:

    @Hal_10000: If the Dem nominee is Biden, I think Klobuchar would be a better pick for Veep, given that Minnesota was in play last time. Up until recently, I would’ve suggested Warren-Castro as a strong ticket. The Dems don’t need to make much effort to win California, but they do need to make the Repubs sweat over Texas.

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