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HomeWorld NewsFrom Reagan to Biden, the decades-long question of age in U.S. election

From Reagan to Biden, the decades-long question of age in U.S. election

While Ronald Reagan, left, had pledged to leave office if he became ‘impaired’, President Biden affirmed that he is ‘racing to the end’.
| Photo Credit: AP

The age question for presidential candidates in the U.S. is more than four decades old. President Ronald Reagan in 1980 answered it with a pledge to resign if he became impaired, and in 1984 with a clever joke that reset his campaign from a stumbling debate performance to a 49-State landslide and a second term.

“I will not make age an issue of this campaign,” Reagan said to the question he knew was coming in perhaps the most famous mic-drop moment in campaign history. “I am not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent’s youth and inexperience.”

The audience roared, even Democratic Vice President Walter Mondale laughed — and Reagan’s reelection was back on track.

Today, Democratic President Joe Biden, 81, is struggling for such a redemptive moment after a disastrous debate performance against Republican former President Donald Trump, 78. Those 90 minutes last week set off alarms among Democrats hoping Mr. Biden would keep Mr. Trump from returning to the White House — and heightened concern among voters long skeptical of how either elderly man would govern a complex nation of more than 330 million people for four more years.

More than two dozen people who have spent time with the President privately described him as often sharp and focused. But he also has moments, particularly later in the evening, when his thoughts seem jumbled and he trails off mid-sentence or seems confused, they said. Sometimes he doesn’t grasp the finer points of policy details. He occasionally forgets people’s names, stares blankly and moves slowly around the room, they said.

Mr. Biden has vowed to stay in the race, despite signs of eroding support on Capitol Hill.

“I am running … no one’s pushing me out,” Mr. Biden said on a on call Wednesday with staffers from his reelection campaign. “I’m not leaving. I’m in this race to the end and we’re going to win.”

But the question facing him is far more intimate, according to one expert who covered Reagan’s health during his presidency. “The most important debate of the campaign is the one taking place right now in Biden’s head between the part of mind telling him he’s the chosen one, and the more self-aware part,” said Rich Jaroslavsky of the University of California Berkeley, formerly of the Wall Street Journal.

At its heart, the question — how old is too old to be President? — is about competence. And Americans have never had wider personal experience with the effects of aging than they do today.

A surge of retiring baby boomers means that millions more Americans know when they see someone declining. For many, this widespread experience made Mr. Biden’s halting performance during Thursday’s debate a familiar reality check.

Mr. Trump seemed more vigorous, even though he lied about or misstated a long list of facts. When he challenged Mr. Biden to a cognitive test, Mr. Trump flubbed the name of the doctor who had administered his.

“Is this an episode, or is this a condition?” Rep. Nancy Pelosi, 84, wondered on MSNBC, reflecting the question dominating Democratic circles this week. “It’s legitimate — of both candidates.”

Reagan faced the same questions even before he was elected as the oldest President to that point.

That didn’t happen. Reagan served two full terms, leaving office in 1989.

Neither Mr. Trump nor Mr. Biden has made a similar pledge, and their campaigns did not respond to requests for comment on Wednesday.

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