Election 2024

Joe Biden: The Latest Elderly Politician Who Refuses To Retire

Biden's performance at Thursday's debate made clear that he should have bowed out after a single term, but many politicians stick around long past their sell-by date.


By now, any interested person with an internet connection has seen President Joe Biden's uncomfortably poor showing in his first debate against former President Donald Trump for the 2024 presidential campaign season. Contrary to assurances that, behind closed doors, Biden is as sharp and lucid as ever, the president appeared frail and struggled to even make his most basic points for most of the 90-minute debate, renewing concerns about his age and mental fitness. Much of the ensuing news coverage involves the possibility of Democrats replacing Biden on the ticket in November.

But whatever ultimately happens between now and the election—or even between now and the Democratic National Convention in August—Biden had every opportunity to avoid this outcome and declined to do so. It's indicative of a trend among lawmakers that he instead opted to cling to power for a little longer.

In March 2020, as he sought the Democratic Party's nomination, Biden campaigned in Michigan with Sens. Kamala Harris (D–Calif.) and Cory Booker (D–N.J.). Each had recently exited the primary and endorsed Biden, and at a Detroit campaign rally, he delivered a message both to them and to voters.

"Look, I view myself as a bridge, not as anything else," he said. "There's an entire generation of leaders you saw stand behind me. They are the future of this country." Weeks later, he said, "I view myself as a transition candidate" for other "people on the bench that are ready to go in."

In each case, Biden seemed to indicate that he only intended to serve one term. There had been murmurs for some time that this was his plan: Politico reported in December 2019 that privately, Biden was "indicating that he will almost certainly not run for a second term while declining to make a promise that he and his advisers fear could turn him into a lame duck and sap him of his political capital." (Later the same day, Biden denied making any such determination.) Carl Bernstein even said in 2015 that Biden was considering a one-term run in 2016, due to concerns about his age.

But if it were ever Biden's intention to win in 2020, evict Trump from the White House, and step aside to make way for the next generation of leaders, that's not what happened. Biden announced his bid for reelection on April 25, 2023; the same day, FiveThirtyEight had Biden's approval numbers nearly 11 points underwater, and he has not been net positive since August 2021.

Why not step aside and make way for Biden's vaunted bench, whom he called "the future of this country?" Democrats have seemingly spent no time even considering other candidates. The most obvious contender, literally waiting in the wings, would be Vice President Kamala Harris—who, as Reason's Elizabeth Nolan Brown has detailed, would be a different sort of disaster, both as a candidate and as a potential president. Before he announced his bid for reelection, Semafor's David Weigel wrote of "the great paradox of 2024: Most Democrats say they want an alternative to Biden, but no alternative they're happy with wants to run."

Ultimately, the president's insistence on running for reelection, even as the available evidence indicates his unsuitability, feels more like a naked grasp for power than a good-faith assessment of one's own capability. And on that metric, Biden is not alone.

When Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D–Calif.) died in 2023 at age 90, she was the oldest sitting U.S. senator. She had also been dogged for years by allegations that she was experiencing cognitive decline and should step down, even while she served as the ranking member on the Senate Judiciary Committee.

In 2022, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R–Iowa) was reelected to his eighth term in the Senate, at the end of which he would be 95 years old. He has also since filed paperwork to run again when that term ends. (This does not necessarily mean that Grassley actually intends to serve past his centenary: Federal election rules require registering as a candidate in order to do certain things like raise money.) The nonagenarian Grassley himself sits on five committees, including the Senate Budget Committee, on which he is the ranking member.

Is it plausible that Chuck Grassley is the only Republican candidate who could serve as Iowa's U.S. senator? The Cook Political Report ranked the state six points more Republican than the nation as a whole in 2022; Grassley defeated his Democratic opponent by twice that margin. Certainly Republicans weren't starved for candidates who could win that race.

Similarly, when Democrats retook the House of Representatives in 2018, Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D–Calif.) jockeyed to retake the House speakership, after serving in that role in 2007–2011. Pelosi managed to defeat a rebellion within the Democratic ranks in part by pledging to serve no more than two more terms in the role. She even seemed to echo Biden, saying, "I see myself as a bridge to the next generation of leaders." Pelosi ultimately relinquished the gavel four years later, at age 82, when Republicans won back the chamber.

This is not to say that either Grassley or Pelosi is mentally unfit to serve. But most people don't stay in a job that long: Retirees are eligible to start drawing Social Security benefits as early as age 62 or as late as 70. By sticking around long past the average person's sell-by date, these 80- and 90-something lawmakers give the impression that they care more about clinging to power than about effectively governing.

In the coming years, Congress will consider whether to draft regulations concerning social media, trillion-dollar tech companies, and artificial intelligence, plus any number of other developments that aren't even on the radar. Like Biden, these literal elder statesmen should have considered whether people who were born before the invention of Kitty Litter are truly qualified to draft rules for an increasingly digital world.