Age in American Politics

Courtesy of

By Tanner Weigel, Editor-in-Chief and Staff Writer

Anyone who has followed the U.S. Democratic presidential primary debates will have no doubt heard about the issue of the candidates’ ages. Indeed, many wonder whether there should be an age limit for who can run for president.

Generational divides are certainly nothing new in politics, however. The primaries leading up to the 2008 U.S. presidential election produced two candidates with very divergent life stories, perhaps more starkly than ever before.

Barack Obama was born in Hawaii in 1961 to an American mother and Kenyan father, and spent several childhood years living in Indonesia. After finishing high school back in Hawaii, Obama enrolled at Occidental College, eventually finishing his degree in political science at Columbia University in New York City.

While working as a community organizer in Chicago, Obama decided that a law degree would serve him well, and he ultimately graduated from Harvard Law (he also served as the first African American editor of the school’s law review). Obama quickly rose in political stature, winning a seat in the Illinois State Senate, and later winning the 2004 election in Illinois for U.S. Senate. At the time of his inauguration as President of the United States in 2009, Obama was 47 years old.

Barack Obama and John McCain on the debate stage. Courtesy of New York Times.

The late John McCain was born in 1936 in the Panama Canal Zone, where his father was then stationed. McCain followed in the footsteps of his father and grandfather, both U.S. Navy admirals, and attended the U.S. Naval Academy. After graduating in 1958, McCain served as a ground-attack pilot, and eventually saw active combat during the Vietnam War. When his plane was shot down during one mission, McCain was imprisoned by the North Vietnamese and endured years of torture and imprisonment.

Following his release, McCain continued to work for the U.S. Navy, until his retirement in 1981, at which point he made a pivot to political life. McCain served as a U.S. Representative, Senator, and eventually clinched the Republican nomination for President in 2008. Had he won the presidential election, McCain would have been 72 years old.

Though the contrasts between these two candidates were plentiful, one common theme was that of their age. McCain and his surrogates touted his experience in foreign policy, seemingly only possible to attain after years of military and political service. But his advanced age meant McCain had to answer questions about his health. 25 years younger than McCain, Obama represented a new generation of leadership. His oratory and optimism about positive change that the U.S. could achieve inspired many. When the two were at the debate stage, Americans had a very clear choice between two different visions of the world, developed in part because of the candidates’ different generational experiences.

In an executive role such as that of President, however, no one candidate can claim expertise in all policy areas. Indeed, Susan Rice, then one of the Obama campaign’s foreign policy aides, made the argument that voters would ultimately prefer Obama’s sense of “judgement” over McCain’s longevity and experience in Washington. Of course, “hope and change” won out, and Barack Obama became the 44th President of the United States.

Age came up again, at least implicitly, during the 2016 U.S. Presidential nomination and election cycle. National Democrats largely went out of their way to hand the nomination to Hillary Clinton, with only Bernie Sanders presenting himself as a competitive challenger. 68 years old at the time, Clinton had been a fixture in American public life for decades and no doubt had the “experience” to be President. But given that Donald Trump was her opponent, there was little reason to use age alone as a meaningful contrast (Trump, incidentally, became the oldest president ever to take office in the United States).

Cool Uncle or Creepy Uncle? Courtesy of Martin/AP.

As candidates for the Democratic nomination continue to line up for a chance to take on President Trump in 2020, the issue of age has again come into the fore. As of writing, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders (technically an Independent) is 78. Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren is 70. Former Vice President Joe Biden is currently 76. But as the Democratic party increasingly tries to appeal to the “woke” generation of Americans, one wonders if candidates such as Beto O’Rourke (46) or Pete Buttigieg (37) automatically hold a certain appeal that eludes older candidates. This begs the question: at what point does a candidate stop being “young”? Cory Booker is 50, Kamala Harris is 54, and Amy Klobuchar is 59.

Let’s focus on the two oldest for a moment. Sanders, who has largely stayed consistent to his ideological bent over decades, is at least a proven entity who people trust will fight for what he believes in. Biden, however, has a checkered past as far as progressive purists are concerned.

And this speaks to perhaps the real problem of being an older candidate: you have a record.

Biden comes from an age when Republicans and Democrats actually compromised, supporting measures that progressives (who often drive momentum in Democratic primaries) find anathema. Biden did not enter public service during the “gotcha politics” of the social media-driven, digital age, and is having to explain some of his past actions.

Naturally, the course of time does not stop. At some point new generations will have to replace the old guard. In many cases it is already happening: U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio Cortez is the poster child for the new kicking out the (entrenched) old. Questions remain whether there is any substance behind the youthful facade, but as long as older incumbents of both parties fail to advance meaningful legislation, I imagine voters will give the up-and-comers a chance.

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