Politics / November 10, 2023

How Old Is Too Old to Run for Office?

President Biden is still sharper than the competition. But the effect of aging political figures’ clinging to their positions has sometimes been detrimental.

Sasha Abramsky

Senator Dianne Feinstein participates in a reenacted swearing-in with her husband Richard C. Blum and then–Vice President Joe Biden in the Old Senate Chamber at the US Capitol on January 3, 2013, in Washington, D.C.

(Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)

Tuesday’s elections were, yet again, a rude awakening for the Republican Party and a tonic for Democrats who had, these past weeks, been pummeled with doomsday polling about the 2024 presidential contest. As in 2022, abortion access proved to be a rallying cry for progressives. In Virginia, Kentucky, Ohio, and elsewhere, conservatives and their pet causes fell flat. The Biden reelection campaign promptly sent out blasts of fund-raising appeals, hoping to build momentum off of the results. And White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters that Americans had, once again, chosen to side with Biden in standing up for “fundamental freedoms” over MAGA extremism.

From out West, while it was gratifying to watch these results come in, it all felt at somewhat of a remove. After all, none of the Pacific states had major statewide races or initiatives on the ballot, and local races—in San Diego and elsewhere—didn’t really deliver any shockers.

But California does have a highly competitive race shaping up for next year’s election for US senator.

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Latest polling shows that none of the declared candidates has cracked 20 percent support, with UC Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies survey putting Katie Porter ahead by a statistically insignificant 1 percent over Adam Schiff, with Barbara Lee and Republican hopeful Steve Garvey trailing behind them. There are, at this point in the game, an awful lot of undecideds—nearly half of all respondents wouldn’t say whom they were planning to vote for.

The top three Democrats, between them, have already raised more than $35 million for this political battle royal, with more money flooding in by the day. As with everything else in California politics, the race to replace temporary senator Laphonza Butler will almost certainly cost more than any other 2024 election bar the presidential contest.

There’ll be plenty of time over the coming months to dissect the policy stances of the various candidates. Today, though, it’s worth reflecting on Butler’s predecessor, Diane Feinstein, who died earlier this year after a very public battle with a disease that no one survives: old age.

Feinstein, who for decades was among the most vigorous and energetic of public figures, was 85 when she won reelection in 2018 and 90 when she died in office five years later. During her last years in the Senate, as she went from one health crisis to the next, a solid majority of Californians told pollsters they believed she was no longer fit to stay in office. It wasn’t that they didn’t like Feinstein and the policies that she championed—after all, they reelected her, by huge margins, five times after her initial victory in 1992. Rather it was that they could see that she was, by the end, a pale shadow of her earlier self and they felt, rightly, that it was time for a changing of the guard.

Perhaps many of those liberal Californians who grew disenchanted with Feinstein’s determination to cling to power recalled the hubristic decision a few years earlier of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg to defy time and medical realities, and to refuse to retire gracefully while Democrats still controlled both the Senate and the presidency and could choose her successor on the court. Ten years ago, the feisty, combative Ginsburg enjoyed folk-hero status among many on the left—her legacy as the great defender of liberal causes looked as secure as any in Supreme Court history. Today, that legacy looks far more mixed. After all, had she retired earlier, the Supreme Court would not today have the 6-3 radical-right majority that overturned Roe v. Wade, that shredded affirmative action, and that looks set to continue from here to eternity its wrecking-ball approach to regulatory agencies and to any efforts to promote gun control. Everything that Ginsburg fought for over her long lifetime of service has been left exposed and vulnerable to the predations of the new court majority as a result of the decisions she made in the last years of her storied career. That’s a pretty devastating coda to an otherwise extraordinary life.

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In the wake of Tuesday’s election results, Biden-backers were quick to say they showed the naysayers were wrong, that Joe Biden and the issues he champions remain the default choice of the majority of American voters. That could be the case. It certainly should be the case that the major issues of the day are issues Democrats can successfully run on. Yet, however unfair such perceptions may be, large numbers of voters, especially young voters, now view the president as being too old to relate to their concerns and too fragile to forcefully represent America on the world stage. Three in four voters tell pollsters that Biden is too old to run for reelection. Astoundingly, two in three Democrat-leaning voters don’t want Biden as their party’s nominee. Those numbers should be ignored only at our peril.

We live in an age in which misinformation shapes political responses to a shocking degree. Unemployment is, for example, at a near-50-year low, yet a majority of Americans are convinced that it is actually at a 50-year high. That’s not just mildly off-base; it’s wildly inaccurate. When I talk to my university students, many tell me they believe unemployment is north of 10 percent. Almost none know that it is actually less than 4 percent. They are getting a steady drip of misinformation, and it is shaping their world view to a shocking degree.

Donald Trump was twice impeached, is facing 91 felony indictments across four separate criminal cases, and, in addition, looks likely to soon be fined hundreds of millions of dollars for committing financial fraud. Yet recent polling shows that more Americans, including a frightening number of young people, currently trust him to take the oath of office in January 2025 to uphold constitutional law in the US than they do Joe Biden—who, despite the best efforts of the House, has neither been impeached nor criminally indicted.

The 77-year-old Trump seems to be pathologically incapable of separating truth from falsehood and routinely scrambles his words on the campaign trail, yet it is Biden, with his white hair and his slowed gait, his occasional verbal gaffes and his stumbles going up and down stairs, whom most poll respondents say is too old, too senescent, to be trusted in office.

President Biden is still capable of maintaining a grueling schedule that would test the stamina of many a younger man or woman. He routinely travels halfway around the world to meet with global leaders, then returns stateside to jump back into the domestic fray. He journeys to Michigan to walk the picket line with striking auto workers, meets with party bigwigs, pushes for more aggressive interventions to slow climate change. There’s nothing half-hearted about his approach to the presidency. As a result of his engagement, he has managed to secure passage of an array of major legislation on a scale that no Democratic president since Lyndon Johnson has come close to achieving. But despite this, a perception of fragility and exhaustion is being etched into millions of Americans’ minds by conservative media outlets and social media misinformation factories.

Perceptions are notoriously sticky. Once they settle in, they’re hard to shift. Biden won in 2020 because of an energized base determined to prevent another Trump victory. If that energy fades in 2024, replaced by a sense of fatigue and discomfort with the status quo, the country risks the unfathomable possibility of Trump’s return to power and an all-out assault on the guard rails protecting the country’s democracy.

It’s not for me to make suggestions or recommendations to the president. Nor is it for me to downplay the huge victories that progressive candidates and issues notched up this past Tuesday. But history does often serve up useful lessons: Think how much more secure Ginsburg’s legacy would have been had she gracefully stepped aside at the right time and made way for a younger jurist to sit on the Supreme Court bench; think how much more dignified Senator Feinstein’s final years would have been had she not run for reelection in her mid-80s.

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Sasha Abramsky

Sasha Abramsky, who writes regularly for The Nation, is the author of several books, including Inside Obama’s Brain, The American Way of PovertyThe House of 20,000 Books, Jumping at Shadows, and, most recently, Little Wonder: The Fabulous Story of Lottie Dod, the World’s First Female Sports Superstar. Subscribe to The Abramsky Report, a weekly, subscription-based political column, here.

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