Politicians’ ages have been brought into focus. How old is too old to lead a country?

Key Points
  • Joe Biden has been described by a US special counsel as an “elderly man with a poor memory”.
  • Biden hit back during a press conference, saying: “I know what the hell I’m doing.”
  • Concerns have also been raised about Donald Trump’s age and mental acuity.
Concerns about Joe Biden’s age have been brought back into the spotlight after a report by US Special Counsel Robert Hur described him as a “sympathetic, well-meaning, elderly man with a poor memory”.
The release of the report, which surrounded the US president’s alleged mishandling of classified documents, came just days after he confused a European leader with their dead predecessor.
In a fiery press conference, , saying: “I am well-meaning, I am an elderly man and I know what the hell I am doing.”
“I’ve been president — I put this country back on its feet.”

Biden isn’t the only US politician whose age and apparent memory failures have raised concerns about his fitness for the job, with his main rival Donald Trump most recently confusing Democrat Nancy Pelosi with Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley.

Is Biden’s age impacting his performance?

Tim Lynch, a professor of American politics at the University of Melbourne, said it seemed that “everyone” in the US political system recognised that Biden was “in cognitive decline”.
“The debate is at what speed and with what consequence,” he said.
“Republicans are saying ‘he’s clearly unfit now’, and Democrats are saying ‘no, this is just normal, he’s still physically fit, he may suffer from senior moments, but this doesn’t impact on his ability to do the job’.

“Trump is in a different kind of cognitive decline. He’s more unstable. He’s more vengeful. He’s always been bizarre, but it seems almost verging on the irrational these days since winning in New Hampshire.”

Despite his occasional public gaffe, there wasn’t any hard evidence to suggest Biden couldn’t fulfil his presidential duties, Lynch said.
“There’s no one singular episode of cognitive failure, which accounts for some disaster,” he said.
“It can’t just be a fall up of a stage or up the steps of Air Force One; there must be some obvious episode where he gets it so wrong that US interests are compromised.”
Mike Green, chief executive of the United States Studies Centre agreed, saying there had been “no indication” from those he knows in the Biden administration that the president’s decision-making or mental capacities were “diminished”.
“He comes to the job with an enormous amount of experience,” he said.
“You may not always agree with him, but on something like Gaza, he knew exactly what he believed in. He’d been working on the issue for decades.

“So there’s a principle there where even at an advanced age, he doesn’t have to think hard about what’s the right thing to do, or what the consequences could be.”

Should an age limit for US president be introduced?

Since George Washington took the top job in 1789, US presidential candidates have had to be at least 35 years old — but there’s no upper age limit.
Lynch said he believed introducing such a rule would “refute the democratic process”.

“Age should be mediated by voters … not some arbitrary limit we might impose,” he said.

Green agreed that there was no need for an upper age limit, saying sometimes younger political leaders don’t have the experience needed to “get stuff done”.
“If voters decide they’re too old, then they won’t win,” he said.

“Then there’s the 25th amendment, which allows the cabinet to make a determination that the president is not competent for reasons of physical or mental health.”

Are there world leaders older than Biden?

While Biden is , there are several leaders elsewhere in the world who are older than him, Lynch noted.
“There are some African leaders well into their 80s, if not 90s,” he said.

At 88, Mahmoud Abbas, who has been head of the Palestinian Authority since 2005, is one of the world’s oldest elected leaders.

Joe Biden is the oldest leader of an English-speaking country. Source: SBS News

Three European presidents with mainly ceremonial powers are also in their 80s: Ireland’s Michael Higgins, Italy’s Sergio Mattarella, and Malta’s George Vella.

Lynch said with increased life expectancy, we would likely see more older leaders in the future.
“Xi Jinping’s now into his 70s with an expectation he would carry on into his 80s, and Putin, similarly … so it’s not impossible to imagine,” he said.

Robert Menzies, who retired in 1941 aged 71, was Australia’s oldest-serving prime minister.

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