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The battle of the geriatric ward?

The question of a president’s age is now central to our national conversation. Get used to it

President Joe Biden meets with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz in the White House on Feb. 9. Associated Press/Photo by Andrew Harnik

The battle of the geriatric ward?

Future Americans may well look back on February of 2024 as a turning point in the American presidency. To put the matter bluntly, Americans are now talking out loud about President Biden’s age and capacities. The issue of an elderly president is now front and center in American politics, and there is no going back—ever.

The nation came close to that turning point back in 1984, when Democratic nominee and former vice president Walter Mondale debated President Ronald Reagan in the course of the electoral campaign. Asked about the age issue, clearly directed only to Reagan, the president looked squarely into the television camera and stated: “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.”

Reagan was then 73 years old. He knew his age would be an issue. He was ready for the question and, master of the moment, he delivered his line with a smile and sublime confidence. The camera caught Mondale watching the president’s answer. His face showed that he knew Reagan had just taken the issue of age off the table. Reagan won re-election in one of the biggest landslides in American presidential history. Nonetheless, it is worth noting that Reagan’s family and closest associates detected a loss of mental acuity before Reagan ended the term.

The 2024 presidential race will probably feature the man who was the oldest serving president in the nation’s history—running against the even older man who won the White House in 2020. The race for the nation’s chief executive has turned into a geriatric ward. But the age issue does not fall evenly between the candidates. The questions about Joe Biden’s age and mental acuity are rooted in longstanding concerns, driven by the president’s mental lapses and general lack of focus, memory, and energy when, rarely enough, he is exposed to the camera or to the public. The White House guards the president and severely limits his public exposure. He has garbled his arguments, lost his train of thought, misspoken his lines, and wrongly identified major world leaders. He appears physically weak and generally confused. He is now 81 years old and, if elected to a second term, could serve until age 86. If unable to serve out his term and removed from office, Vice President Kamala Harris becomes president. This would spell disaster, and should serve as warning.

Sadly, both likely party nominees are old and tired political brands, and neither can plausibly claim to be key to the nation’s future.

Of course, all this was put on the table—permanently—by the report of special counsel Robert Hur, who was charged to investigate the possession and misuse of classified intelligence materials. Former president Trump now faces criminal charges related to materials found at Mar-a-Lago, his Florida home. Classified documents were also found at the Delaware home of the Bidens, wrongly retained after his tenure as vice president. In filing his report, Hur found that Biden had indeed wrongly retained, possessed, and cited high level U.S. intelligence materials, but Hur declined to ask for a criminal indictment of the president. Specifically, Hur defended his decision not to being criminal charges against the president by citing his age and faulty memory. In his words, he found Biden to be “a sympathetic, well-meaning, elderly man with a poor memory.” He was describing the current president of the United States. This constitutes a national crisis.

Those words also represent a political crisis for the White House, the Biden campaign, and the Democratic Party. Frankly, some Democrats wondered out loud if Biden would have been better off indicted but not identified as an “elderly man with a poor memory.” Much can happen between now and Election Day, but that diagnosis is likely to spell electoral disaster.

This is not just a Republican assessment. One Democratic House member told NBC News, “It’s a nightmare.” The editorial board of The New York Times observed, “the combination of Mr. Biden’s age and his absence from the public stage has eroded the public’s confidence.” They continued: “He looks as if he is hiding, or worse, being hidden.” The editors went on to describe the situation as “a dark moment for Mr. Biden’s presidency.”

But Joe Biden is not merely the sitting president of the United States. He is running for yet another term. This is untenable, and even his own party must know it. It is totally irresponsible, and those who have encouraged him to run for a second term bear culpability. Sadly, both likely party nominees are old and tired political brands, and neither can plausibly claim to be key to the nation’s future.

In this sense, there is a mismatch. President Biden, who had stumbled badly in the 2020 race for the Democratic nomination, became the nominee only because the party decided to run an old brand one last time. The future of the Democratic Party is clear for all can see. It is a future defined by a massive shift to the progressive left. After Joe Biden, it’s a free for all for the left wing of the party. On the Republican side, much less is clear. In all likelihood, that future will not be decided until Donald Trump is off the scene.

For now, we are headed into an electoral geriatric zone. The nation deserves better. Christians know that we are to respect our elders, but that duty does not extend to electing the elderly to the highest office in the land. This situation is healthy for no one and is a warning to the American people. That’s something all of us had better remember.

R. Albert Mohler Jr.

Albert Mohler is president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and Boyce College and editor of WORLD Opinions. He is also the host of The Briefing and Thinking in Public. He is the author of several books, including The Gathering Storm: Secularism, Culture, and the Church. He is the seminary’s Centennial Professor of Christian Thought and a minister, having served as pastor and staff minister of several Southern Baptist churches.

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