WASHINGTON — Americans actually agree on something in this time of raw discord: Joe Biden is too old to be an effective president in a second term. Only a few years his junior, Donald Trump raises strikingly less concern about his age.
But they have plenty of other problems with Trump, who at least for now far outdistances his rivals for the Republican nomination despite his multiple criminal indictments. Never mind his advanced years — if anything, some say, the 77-year-old ought to grow up.
A new poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research finds much of the public oddly united in sizing up the one trait Biden cannot change.
The president has taken to raising the age issue himself, with wisecracks, as if trying to relax his audiences about his 80 trips around the sun.
Age discrimination may be banned in the workplace but the president’s employers — the people — aren’t shy about their bias.
In the poll, fully 77% said Biden is too old to be effective for four more years. Not only do 89% of Republicans say that, so do 69% of Democrats. That view is held across age groups, not just by young people, though older Democrats specifically are more supportive of his 2024 bid.
In contrast, about half of U.S. adults say Trump is too old for the office, and here the familiar partisan divide emerges — Democrats are far more likely to disqualify Trump by age than are Republicans.
What’s clear from the poll is that Americans are saying out with the old and in with the young, or at least younger.
Democrats, Republicans and independents want to sweep a broad broom through the halls of power, imposing age limits on the presidency, Congress and the Supreme Court. In all about two-thirds of U.S. adults back an age ceiling on candidates for president and Congress and a mandatory retirement age for justices.
Specifically, 67% favor requiring Supreme Court justices to retire by a certain age, 68% support age ceilings for candidates for House and Senate, and 66% support age ceilings for candidates for president.
With elders mostly running the show and the Constitution to contend with, don’t expect that to happen any time soon.
‘Too Old Overall’
Even so, the survey suggests lots of people across political lines are open to seeing a younger face, a fresher one, or both, capture the public imagination.
Among them is Noah Burden, a 28-year-old communications consultant in Alexandria, Virginia. Despite a clear preference for Biden over Trump, he wishes the top contenders for the presidency were closer to his generation.
“They’re too old overall,” Burden said. That older generation represents “a sense of values and sense of the country and the world that just isn’t accurate anymore. It can be dangerous to have that view.”
Similarly, Greg Pack, 62, a past and possibly future Trump voter in Ardmore, Oklahoma, wishes Biden and Trump would both move along.
“Just watching and listening to Biden it’s pretty self-evident he is not what he was,” said Pack, a registered nurse.
Trump? “He is a lot sharper but at the end of his term, who knows?” Pack said, contemplating January 2029. “I’m just ready for someone younger.” He’s had about enough of a man who is “all about himself” and is “wearing his indictments like a badge of honor,” but if that’s who it takes to defeat Biden, so be it.
WHAT’S YOUR WORD?
The AP-NORC survey went beyond posing questions and presenting choices. It also had a word association exercise, asking people to offer the first word or phrase that comes to mind at the mention of each man.
The answers underscored how age is a particular drag for Biden across party lines, even when people aren’t prompted to think about that, and how Trump largely escapes that only to draw disdain if not disgust on other fronts.
In those visceral responses, 26% mentioned Biden’s age and an additional 15% used words such as “slow” or “confused.” One Republican thought of “potato.” Among Democrats, Biden’s age was mentioned upfront by 28%. They preferred such terms over “president,” “leader,” “strong” or “capable.” One who approves of his performance nevertheless called him “senile.”
Only 3% in the survey came up with “confused” as the first descriptor for Trump, and a mere 1% used “old” or the like. Instead, the top words were those like “corrupt” or “crooked” (15%), “bad” and other generally negative terms (11%), words such as “liar” and “dishonest” (8%), along with “good” and other generally positive comments (8%).
Why the divergence between the two on public perceptions of their age?
“Biden just seems to be very compromised by age-related conditions,” said Eric Dezenhall, 60, a corporate scandal-management consultant who has followed Trump’s career and worked in Ronald Reagan’s White House. “Even people who like him see him as being frail and not altogether ‘there.’”
“Whatever Trump’s negatives are, I don’t think most people see them as being related to being disabled in an age-related way,” he said. “In fact, the more you throw at him, the more he seems like a ranting toddler. Disturbing, sure, but elderly? Not necessarily. Trump has been ranting this way for almost eight decades, and it always drives him forward.”
For Diego Saldana, 31, it hits close to home when he see Biden fumbling some words or taking halting steps.
“I see all the symptoms my grandpa had,” he said. “You can’t be ruling a country” that way. His granddad now is 94. Saldana supports Trump despite hesitancy over the criminal charges against him.
Eric Colwell, 34, an audit manager in Sacramento, California, came up with “old” for Biden and “incompetent” for Trump as his first-impression words. An independent who leans Democratic, he sounded a little embarrassed on the phone that the U.S. can’t do better than these two.
“Sheer optics,” he said. “Older gentlemen. You want your leaders, from a visual standpoint, to be spry and energetic. And we tend to fall short.”
He views Trump, with all his hand gestures and animation, as “a larger figure, a little more lively, just his personality. That gives him that energetic appearance.” But Colwell is certainly not going there.
“Biden was a good step to steady the water,” he said. “Biden is more representative of the status quo and normalcy and that’s probably what drew everyone initially to him” after the tumult of the Trump presidency.
“Now you have a return to stability. But in terms of moving forward and having any measurable change on my generation, we’re probably going to need younger leadership.”
Alyssa Baggio, 32, is a Democratic-leaning independent in Vancouver, Washington, who works as a recruitment specialist for a homebuilder. She thought Biden was too old for the presidency before he started it. She’s convinced of it now and open to voting next year for someone else, just not Trump.
“I don’t think he’s done a terrible job in office,” she said of Biden, “but I think that’s more because, as opposed to Trump, he surrounds himself with more experienced and logical people.”
Not that she places great value in experience, except in foreign affairs. “D.C. is a swamp,” she said, “and the more experience you have, the more you sink into the swamp.”
Said Jose Tapia, 33, a tech-company videographer in Raleigh, North Carolina, “There’s got to be a multitude of younger people who are also super qualified. There’s no fresh faces at all.”
Older Democrats are less negative than younger ones on Biden’s decision to run again. In the poll, only 34% of Democrats under 45 want him running for reelection, compared with 54% of those older. Still, about three-quarters of younger Democrats say they’ll at least probably support him if he’s the nominee; others did not commit to that.
RESPECT YOUR ELDERS
All of this is dispiriting to S. Jay Olshansky, a public-health professor and aging expert at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He thinks age, when sizing up a presidential candidate, is no more relevant than eye color and the public’s focus on it shortchanges the gift of wisdom and experience.
“It’s sort of the classic ageism that we’ve been battling for the last 50 years,” he said. “The age of the individual is irrelevant. It’s the policies that they bring to the table that are important. And the number of times around the sun just doesn’t cut it as an important variable at all.”
From observing both men from afar and examining their medical records, Olshansky regards Biden and Trump as likely “super agers” despite signs of frailty from Biden and Trump’s excess weight.
“Biden is likely to outlive Trump because he has fewer harmful risk factors and he does exercise quite notably, whereas Trump does not,” he said. But overall, “they’re both functioning at a very high level.”
“If you don’t like what they say,” he added, “it’s not because of how old they are. It’s because you don’t like what they say.”