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How old is too old to run a country? IG News


key points
  • The US special prosecutor described Joe Biden as an “elderly man with a bad memory”.
  • Biden fired 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 come back into the spotlight after a report by US special counsel Robert Hur described him as a “compassionate, well-intentioned, elderly man with a failing memory”.
The release of the report surrounding the US president’s alleged mishandling of classified documents came just days after he confused the European leader with their dead predecessor.
At a stormy press conference, saying, “I’m well-meaning, I’m an older man, and I know what the hell I’m doing.”
“I was president – I got this country back on its feet.”

Biden is not the only US politician whose age and apparent memory lapses have raised questions about his fitness for the job, with his main rival Donald Trump most recently confusing Democrat Nancy Pelosi with Republican presidential nominee Nikki Haley.

Does Biden’s age affect his performance?

Tim Lynch, a professor of American politics at the University of Melbourne, said “everyone” in the American political system seemed to recognize that Biden was “in cognitive decline.”
“The debate is ongoing, at what speed and with what consequences,” he said.
“Republicans are saying ‘he’s obviously not fit right now’ and Democrats are saying ‘no, that’s just normal, he’s still physically fit, he may be suffering moments in office, but it doesn’t affect his ability to do the job.’

“Trump is in a different cognitive decline. He’s more unstable. He’s more vindictive. He’s always been bizarre, but he seems to be almost borderline irrational these days since he won New Hampshire.”

Despite his occasional public gaffes, there is no hard evidence to suggest that Biden has failed to fulfill his presidential duties, Lynch said.
“There is no single episode of cognitive failure that is the cause of some catastrophe,” he said.
“It can’t just be a fall off the stage or the steps of Air Force One; there has to be some obvious episode where he got it so wrong that US interests are at risk.”
Mike Green, executive director of the Center for the Study of the United States, agreed, saying there was “no indication” from those he knew in the Biden administration that the president’s decision-making or mental abilities had been “diminished.”
“He comes to the job with a lot of experience,” he said.
“You may not always agree with him, but in something like Gaza, he knew exactly what he believed in. He worked on this question for decades.

“So there’s a principle that even in old age he doesn’t have to think hard about what’s right or what the consequences might be.”

Should there be an age limit for the US president?

Since George Washington assumed the highest office in 1789, candidates for the presidency of the United States have had to be at least 35 years old – but there is no upper age limit.
Lynch said he believed the imposition of such a rule would “set back the democratic process.”

“The age should be determined by the voters … not some arbitrary limit that can be imposed,” he said.

Green agreed that an upper age limit was unnecessary, saying that sometimes younger political leaders lack the experience needed to “get things done.”
“If voters decide they’re too old, then they’re not going to win,” he said.

“Then there’s the 25th Amendment, which allows the cabinet to decide that the president is incompetent due to physical or mental health.”

Are there any world leaders older than Biden?

While Biden is elsewhere in the world, there are more leaders who are older than he is, Lynch noted.
“Some African leaders are already in their 80s, if not 90s,” he said.

Mahmoud Abbas, who has led the Palestinian Authority since 2005, is one of the oldest elected leaders in the world at 88.

Bar graph showing Joe Biden's age compared to other world leaders

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

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

Lynch said that with increased life expectancy, we are likely to see more older leaders in the future.
“Xi Jinping is now in his 70s with expectations of continuing 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 prime minister.

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