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As Biden celebrates his birthday, candles on the cake are adding to a problem

Joe Biden is sworn in as the 46th president of the United States by Chief Justice John Roberts as Jill Biden holds the Bible during the 59th Presidential Inauguration at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Jan. 20, 2021.
Andrew Harnik
/
AP
Joe Biden is sworn in as the 46th president of the United States by Chief Justice John Roberts as Jill Biden holds the Bible during the 59th Presidential Inauguration at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Jan. 20, 2021.

Sometimes when you sing "Happy Birthday" to someone it's just as nice to leave out that line asking "How old are you now?"

Supporters of President Biden can be forgiven a twinge of mixed feelings as he celebrates his 81st on Monday. Biden was already the oldest president ever on the day he took the oath. Now, with a year to run on his current term, Biden is also asking voters for four more beyond that — which would bring him to 86.

There is no age limit for elected federal office holders — ultimately voters decide that — but the "age issue" has continued to dog this president. Polls have found even Democratic voters wondering if he is getting too old for the job.

A flurry of recent polls taken in crucial swing states by the New York Times/Siena College, YouGov, Morning Consult and Quinnipiac University all show Biden looking remarkably weak in a race that pits him against Donald Trump, his all-but-certain 2024 Republican opponent. A breakdown of those polls shows Biden's slipping the most among voters under 30. That's a category he won by 26 points in 2020, according to extensive surveys of validated voters by the Pew Research Center.

While Biden won the overall popular vote by 7 million, his winning margins among younger voters were key to carrying several swing states and reversing the Electoral College tally from 2016.

According to Daniel Cox, a senior fellow in polling and public opinion at the American Enterprise Institute, Biden's losses among younger voters are worst among those who are paying the most attention.

"Young Americans, like a lot of Americans, are unhappy with their candidate choices,"Cox notes. "[But] the people most displeased appear to be those who are most politically engaged. Young adults who are politically engaged tend to be much more liberal and more critical of Biden than those who are paying less attention."

Fallout among the most engaged young voters may reflect unhappiness with his performance on climate change and student debt as well as his full-throated support for Israel.

In the end, however, there is no getting around the elephant in the room. Although trim and energetic, Biden often shows his age, not only in appearance but in demeanor.

Biden was already 78 when he took office. Notably, the second oldest U.S. president in history, Ronald Reagan, did not turn 78 until several weeks after he had left office.

By comparison, Trump will be 78 by the time we reach Election Day 2024. Nonetheless, he has lately featured Biden's age and alleged various age-related infirmities in his rally speeches and social media posts.

Reagan faced the 'how old is too old' question in the 1980s

The age question is really twofold: Is a candidate too old to run and is that candidate too old to serve if elected?

When Reagan ran in 1980, he was 69 and looking at a 70th birthday shortly after Inauguration Day. Age was not as much of an issue as might have been expected in that year, at least in part because the former Hollywood actor still projected assurance, optimism and strength.

But it became one. While he did well in most public settings, reports circulated of his inattention to detail and apparent disengagement in meetings. His party took a beating in the midterms in 1982 when he lost seats in the House and saw big-state and swing-state governorships captured by Democrats.

It was rumored that Reagan's wife, Nancy, wanted him to retire. A robust field of major Democratic candidates lined up to challenge him. Both inflation and unemployment were far worse than they are today, with the jobless rate and the increase in the consumer price index both running into double digits during the early 1980s. The Federal Reserve was slamming on the brakes as rarely before, and Reagan's numbers in the Gallup Poll were at times as bad as Biden's have been lately, bottoming out at 35% approval early in his third year in office.

But Reagan did run in 1984. The economy improved throughout the year, and Democrats spent months squabbling over their nominee. They settled on the safe but rather prosaic Walter Mondale, a former senator from Minnesota who had been Jimmy Carter's vice president.

Reagan climbed back up over 50% in the Gallup and seemed to be cruising to a second term. Then the two candidates met in Louisville for a debate in September. Reagan was off his usual game. Mondale — who was younger than Reagan by nearly 17 years — challenged him to remember statements and events from the past and Reagan was slow to respond. The cover of Time magazine showed the candidates as jockeys on horseback with a headline that asked: "A Real Race?"

Republican John McCain (L) and Democrat Barack Obama (R) stand on stage together following their third and final presidential debate on Oct. 15, 2008 in New York.
Stan Honda / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
Republican John McCain and Democrat Barack Obama stand on stage together following their third and final presidential debate on Oct. 15, 2008 in New York.

So the stakes were high in October when the two candidates had a final debate in Kansas City. Reagan seemed himself in the early going. When one of the moderators bluntly asked if age was an issue in the campaign,Reagan was ready with his line: "I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit for political purposes, my opponent's youth and inexperience." The audience erupted in laughter. Even Mondale laughed. With perfect tone and timing, Reagan had defused the explosive device.

But there was another memorable moment before the debate ended. When each candidate was given time to sum up, Reagan began telling a story about driving down the Pacific Coast Highway. The story wound on, much like that road itself, with no endpoint in sight. The moderator interrupted to politely cut him off and Reagan thanked him with warm enthusiasm.

And the evening was over. Many who witnessed that moment, including this writer, left the auditorium that night with an uncertain feeling. But on TV, the awkward finale was lost in endless replays of Reagan's quip about "age and inexperience."

In November, Reagan carried 49 of the 50 states with nearly 59% of the national popular vote. When compared to the margins of presidential contests in recent decades, that landslide seems almost incredible.

But if Reagan was clearly not too old to run for president, was he still too old to be president for another term? There, the judgment of history is less clear.

In his mid-70s, Reagan at times seemed less than on top of events, mixing up names and showing little interest in details. Aides blamed his "hands-off management style" when the U.S. was found to have swapped sophisticated weapons for hostages held by Iranian-backed terrorists. He signed a sweeping tax reform bill passed by Congress in 1986 but showed limited familiarity with its contents.

In 1994, Reagan at 83 announced he had Alzheimer's disease. He died in 2004. There has since been debate over whether he was experiencing the early effects of the disease while in office. But whatever the final judgment on Reagan's second term, he won it by carrying not only the overall popular vote but the votes of those under 30. He was in fact the last Republican presidential nominee to do so.

GOP presidential candidate Bob Dole (L) and President Bill Clinton (R) are shown on a television monitor during a debate between the two candidates in Hartford, Conn., in 1996.
David Ake / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
GOP presidential candidate Bob Dole (left) and President Bill Clinton are shown on a television monitor during a debate between the two candidates in Hartford, Conn., in 1996.

Democrats dominate the youth vote

In the decades that followed, Democrats reaped a ripening harvest among the young. In 1992, Bill Clinton was 22 years younger than the incumbent President George H.W. Bush (then the widest age gap between major party nominees since the 1850s). But the upstart Democrat from Arkansas embraced the difference, playing the saxophone on late-night TV and taking questions from cheeky students on cable TV (Remember "Boxers or briefs?")

Four years later, when he was the incumbent, Clinton faced a Republican nominee even more his senior. Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas was 23 years older, and age was more an issue than at any time in recent memory. In a TV debate, Clinton said he was more concerned with the age of Dole's ideas, a deft way of having it both ways. But a bumper sticker seen that fall was more direct: "Dole IS 96."

In the next decade, the youthful Sen. Barack Obama saw the age gap widen still further as he faced Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who was older by a quarter of a century. Like Clinton before him, Obama, who was 47 when first elected, owned the under-30 vote. In fact, in 2008 the share of the overall vote cast by people under 30 actually exceeded the share of those over 65 — a true rarity in American politics.

Although neither Hillary Clinton nor Joe Biden had Obama's personal connection to younger voters, both carried the category easily over Trump. In recent polling, younger voters are more likely to vote for Democrats across the board, especially where the salient issues involve gender. Younger voters have also been a driver of recent wins for abortion rights candidates and for abortion rights initiatives and referenda.

All of which may mean that, even in his 80s, a Democrat such as Biden could still reclaim the younger voters' loyalty when the process of polling gives way to actual voting.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ron Elving
Ron Elving is Senior Editor and Correspondent on the Washington Desk for NPR News, where he is frequently heard as a news analyst and writes regularly for NPR.org.