After President Dwight D. Eisenhower suffered a serious heart attack in September, 1955, Republican Party leaders fretted over his health and, more than that, the health of their party if he didn’t run for a second term. Eisenhower, the former supreme commander of the Allied forces, was enormously popular and probably undefeatable; there was no obvious Republican alternative for the 1956 election, although the forty-three-year-old Vice-President, Richard Nixon, had been praised for his performance as a stand-in for the President during his recovery. Eisenhower was in no hurry to announce his intentions; he was sixty-five, and felt worn down. When he met with the Republican Party chairman, Leonard Hall, he told him, “You’re looking at an old dodo,” and waited until Leap Day—February 29, 1956—to declare that he would run again. That led the editors of The New Republic to write, with actuarial arrogance, “No man elected President at 65 has lived out his term in the White House. No man with a damaged heart has accepted his party’s Presidential nomination.” As it happened, Eisenhower did accept the nomination, was reëlected, and did not die until the spring of 1969, when he was seventy-eight.
President Joe Biden’s résumé bears little resemblance to Eisenhower’s; his career is that of a politician, not a soldier. But concerns about his health and his stamina follow him, just as they followed Eisenhower. It has been reported that Biden will announce whether he will seek reëlection not long after he delivers the State of the Union address, on February 7th, and, although the next general election is nearly two years off, the Democratic primaries start in less than a year, and there’s no denying the impatience of people not named Biden for him to get on with it. Representative James Clyburn, of South Carolina, who deserves a lot of credit for propelling Biden on the path to victory three years ago, is among those close to the President who are pretty certain that he’ll run, and that he has already made up his mind. Biden and his supporters are certainly encouraged by polls that show upward movement in his approval ratings.
But approval of Presidential performance is not the same as a wish for that President to perform in office for another six years. A recent CNN poll suggested that Democrats, by a wide margin, don’t want Biden to seek reëlection, and that few want another contest in which Biden faces a resurrected Donald Trump, who is once more leading in polls among Republicans. Biden has every right to ask, “What’s the hurry?” If he declares, each sentence he utters becomes a political statement. That, and the alternative—early lame-duck status if a President doesn’t run—is why postponing an announcement until the last minute, or the minute before, has often been the case. In 1944, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, an ailing wartime President contemplating an unprecedented fourth term (following an unprecedented third term), waited until July 11th—just eight days before the Democratic National Convention—to announce his anticipated plans, reading from a statement to the White House press corps that “if the people command me to continue in this office and in this war” he was ready and willing.
He did continue, but died in office in April, 1945. By the end of 1951, approval for his successor, Harry Truman, had fallen to the low twenties—brought down by the stalemated Korean War, an assortment of small-bore scandals, and a gnawing fear of Communism. Truman had privately decided not to seek another term—effectively a third term, after nearly eight gruelling and consequential years—but he waited until the annual Jefferson-Jackson Day Dinner, on March 29, 1952, less than four months before the Democratic Convention, to spring the news. “I have served my country long and, I think, efficiently and honestly,” Truman said. “I do not feel that it is my duty to spend another four years in the White House.” In 1968, in very different circumstances, the deeply divisive Lyndon Johnson was pushed to announce his abdication, along with a partial halt of the bombing of North Vietnam, five months before the Democrats convened again.
Measured by major legislative accomplishment and personal sanity, Biden has already had a successful Presidency, with unsurprising fluctuations in public approval. But this is not the gentler Eisenhower era; missteps tend to get unforgiving scrutiny. The slipshod treatment of classified materials, dating from Biden’s time as Vice-President, which were discovered in an office and at his private residence, is disturbing and politically harmful. One may argue that this episode doesn’t compare to Trump’s defiant, subpoena-resisting treatment of top-secret documents, but Republicans, out for revenge, haven’t had much difficulty conflating the two cases. At the very least, as Senator Debbie Stabenow, a Michigan Democrat, told NBC’s “Meet the Press,” “It’s certainly embarrassing, right?” It would be a fitting description, too, of the discovery of classified documents last month at the former Vice-President Mike Pence’s Indiana home.
The document cases may fade, or run out of special counsels, but what won’t go away is a widespread worry about Biden’s age. There’s no shortage of political kibitzers willing to repeat that he’ll be eighty-two when he takes the oath of office again, and eighty-six at the end of a second term. Though the nation has grown accustomed to elderly men in the White House—from the “grandfatherly” Eisenhower, who was sixty-two when he first ran, in 1952, to Ronald Reagan, who was seventy-three at the start of his second term, and Trump, who was seventy when he won the Presidency—no sitting President has been as old as Biden.
Age may not be a determining factor in executive ability, but it does mean something, as Eisenhower clearly understood when he wrote to a friend that “we all know that when advancing years and diminishing energy begin to take their toll, the last one that ever appreciates such a situation is the victim himself.” Contrast that with the example of Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand’s forty-two-year-old former Prime Minister, who announced her resignation in January, saying, “I know what this job takes. And I know that I no longer have enough in the tank to do it justice.” It’s no insult to Ardern to suggest that the U.S. Presidency requires more fuel in the tank than most head-of-government jobs. And it’s no insult to President Biden, nor is it ageist, to write that all men are mortal, and that older men are more mortal than younger ones.
When it comes to Presidential continuity, we’ve been a pretty lucky country. But the peaceful transition of power, which the nation treasures and took for granted until Trump’s unruly post-Presidency, has often relied upon orderly, if combative, transitions in party leadership. There may be no rush for Biden to reveal his plans, but, when he does, the announcement should be not only a celebration of the recent past but a sensitive, and realistic, embrace of his party’s future—and a new generation of talented men and women, who will step forward when the President is wise enough to say that he’s letting go.
I wish nothing but good health and the best for anyone who lives into their seventies — myself and my siblings included — but I also know that telling someone to retire or quit based on theoretical numbers and other people’s life experience doesn’t always render the results you want.