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CreditIllustration by Nicholas Konrad; Photographs by Ruth Fremson, Erin Schaff/The New York Times, Tamir Kalifa, Travis Dove, for The New York Times

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Life has seven stages, Shakespeare wrote, ending in oblivion, but he might have forgotten an eighth: running for president. Jimmy Carter, the country’s longest-living former chief executive, seemed to express concern on Tuesday that all three Democratic presidential front-runners are septuagenarians. “I hope there’s an age limit,” he said. “If I were just 80 years old, if I was 15 years younger, I don’t believe I could undertake the duties I experienced when I was president.”

The debate: The age minimum for the presidency is 35. Should there be a maximum, too?


The average age of American presidents at swearing-in is 55, but recent decades have seen many outliers. At 70, President Trump was the oldest to take office, beating a record set by Ronald Reagan, who still remains the oldest person ever to leave it, at 77. Well before the end of Mr. Reagan’s second term, in 1989, speculation abounded about his mental decline; he would be found to have Alzheimer’s disease five years later.

Today, 76-year-old Joe Biden is leading the polls for the Democratic nomination, followed by Senators Bernie Sanders, 78, and Elizabeth Warren, 70. Both Mr. Sanders and Mr. Biden would be older going in than Mr. Reagan was coming out, and Mr. Biden, in particular, has established something of a pattern of blunders that has invited questions about his mental fitness to hold the most powerful office on the planet. And given that the average life expectancy for white males was 76.4 years in 2017, concern about physical longevity has also reared its head.

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For Mr. Carter, putting an age cap on the presidency is a matter of guarding against the cognitive decline that naturally attends old age. “You have to be very flexible with your mind,” he said, adding:

You have to be able to go from one subject to another and concentrate on each one adequately and then put them all together in a comprehensive way. … The things I faced just in foreign affairs, I don’t think I could undertake them if I was 80 years old.

Caitlin Schneider has expressed a similar view in the progressive outlet Splinter, floating a maximum age of 65. She writes:

Some might argue that the sheer premise of this story is ageist, but being president is (theoretically) an incredibly taxing job! To question whether we ought to have an age cap on candidates isn’t designed to disparage the old, but to take a long hard look at the job at hand. If the rules say a 34-year-old can’t do it, it’s worth asking: can an 80-year-old?

Andrew Ferguson writes in The Atlantic that an age limit may be necessary to break up the gerontocracy — rule by the old — within the Democratic Party, whose leadership is on average 24 years older than that of the Republican Party. He writes:

There is a huge gap between where the energy and creativity of the party lie, with a group of dynamic activists and House members in their 30s and even their 20s (thank you, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez), and the ruling class of 70-somethings layered far above like a crumbling porte cochère. … The trick for old folks is to adjust their search for purpose and meaning as they follow nature’s course and give way to their juniors.

Calls for disqualifying older candidates in the absence of specific evidence of poor health is discriminatory, argues Ashton Applewhite, the author of “This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism.” Statistical relationships between age and cognitive decline, she says, tell us nothing about individuals running for president, who are de facto atypical. She writes:

Eighty-year-old senators are healthier than the average octogenarian; many exhibit astonishing intellectual powers and physical stamina. Nor is Bernie Sanders the average 78-year-old. Clearly he should undergo a physical exam by nonpartisan authorities and make the relevant results public, as should all presidential candidates. … But generalizations about the capacities of older people are no more defensible than racial or gender stereotypes. Period.

Duke University professors James Chappel and Sari Edelstein, who study the culture of age, write in The Washington Post that research shows elderly people are more cognitively capable than common prejudices suggest and in some cases have more to offer than their juniors: Nelson Mandela and Winston Churchill, for example, were effective leaders through their 70s. Dr. Chappel and Dr. Edelstein write:

Rather than contemplate the disqualification of candidates because of their advanced age, we would do well to consider how older candidates might bring a heightened awareness to issues of inequality and discrimination, a wealth of policy expertise, and the adroitness and diplomacy that comes with years of experience in the government.

Moreover, as John Della Volpe, the director of polling at the Harvard Institute of Politics, pointed out to The Times, a candidate does not have to be of a particular generation to represent its interests. Support for Mr. Biden and Mr. Sanders, for example, is deeply polarized by age, with Sanders leading among those under 35.

Americans under the age of 35 are second-class citizens, the writer Osita Nwanevu has argued in Slate. The country’s patchwork of age restrictions for federal and state office was born out of the founding fathers’ half-baked assumptions, based on personal experience, about youthful incompetence — a patently illogical prejudice, he says, given that 12 of the delegates at the Constitutional Convention, including Alexander Hamilton, were under 35. (Although since there was little debate on the issue, it’s possible the logic was more evident to even those younger delegates at the time.)

But setting aside the question of exactly how old is old enough to run for office, Mr. Nwanevu writes, it makes no sense for that number to be different from the voting age:

The consequence of the nation’s age of candidacy laws is that one-third of American adults — the more than 74 million people between 18 to 35 — don’t enjoy full political rights: If they’re citizens, they have the right to vote without necessarily having the right to be voted for. This is wrong. … A black voter who thinks a black politician would be better attuned to the issues affecting him can vote for a black politician. A woman can vote for a woman. But a 20-year-old cannot, by law, vote to send another 20-year-old to Congress.

As Matt Yglesias writes for Vox, the Constitution’s age requirements can produce strange contrasts: Donald Trump was able to run for president in 2016 with no political qualifications to speak of, while Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, one of the Democratic Party’s most talented operatives, cannot. He writes:

The constitutional prohibition on people under the age of 35 serving as president is just one of these weird lacuna that was handed down to us from the 18th century but that nobody would seriously propose creating today if not for status quo bias. Realistically, most people that young would simply have a hard time winning an election. But if you can pull it off, you should be allowed.


During the drafting of the Constitution, only James Wilson, one of the Supreme Court’s first justices, opposed its age restrictions. “There was no more reason for incapacitating youth than age, where the requisite qualifications were found,” James Madison wrote of Wilson’s dissent. One can argue whether using age as a proxy for electoral fitness makes good sense or bad, but it seems clear that our current system reveals a country of two minds on the question, fencing off public office at one end of life but not the other.

Resolving that contradiction, however, would require a constitutional amendment, one that either removes the age floor or imposes a ceiling. Given the almost insurmountable barriers to changing the Constitution, that’s unlikely to happen anytime soon.

Do you have a point of view we missed? Email us at debatable@nytimes.com. Please note your name, age and location in your response, which may be included in the next newsletter.


“Age has never defined a race so sharply before”: Lisa Lerer and Denise Lu look at the divide within the Democratic Party on the question of age. [The New York Times]

Ed Kilgore takes a historical view of old presidents. [New York magazine]

Can we talk about Joe Biden’s age? Michelle Goldberg, David Leonhardt and Ross Douthat discuss on The Argument. [The New York Times]

Bandy X. Lee, an assistant clinical professor at the Yale School of Medicine, argues that presidents should have to take a “fitness for duty” exam. [The Conversation]


Here’s what readers had to say about the last debate: What’s the right way to reverse the obesity epidemic?

Elaine from Washington, D.C., pointing to Roxane Gay’s memoir, “Hunger,” commented that “weight is not just about food”: “For sexually abused children, excess weight can represent safety, an actual layer of physical protection. Abuse also contributes to depression and other mental problems that can and do lead to eating disorders including overeating.”

Emily Swensen from Utah wrote in that standard metrics used to determine healthy weight, such as body mass index, are flawed because they don’t distinguish between fat and muscle: “They are decades old, imprecise and don’t reflect modern body types such as athletic women.”

And Barry M. Popkin, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Public Health, wrote in that we should take large-scale regulatory measures, like Chile’s new food labeling system: “Countries other than the U.S. are increasingly taking on the food industry, whose dual mantras of ‘physical activity is solution to the problem’ and ‘we must be part of the solution’ has not worked at all.”

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