It’s a story so benign and unremarkable that it’s embarrassing it’s getting any coverage at all: man trips, falls, stands back up and walks it off. Except, of course, that the man is Joe Biden, who at 80 and seeking re-election is currently competing to be the oldest president in US history.
On Thursday, Biden was at the US Air Force Academy graduation ceremony handing out the last diploma when he tripped over a black sandbag. He got back up with a hand from Secret Service agents, and walked himself back to his seat. By all accounts, he was fine.
This isn’t the first time a president or White-House-seeker’s stumble or unsteadiness has proven to be ripe fodder for both the opposition and the media. Donald Trump, who before Biden was the oldest first-term president in US history, was wobbly on his feet at the graduation ceremony for the US Military Academy at West Point in 2020, and seemed to struggle to raise a glass to his lips. That fueled broad speculation about the then-president’s health.
With the leading 2024 contenders both well into their golden years, it’s reasonable to ask if they’re cognitively and physically up to the task. Being president is taxing on all levels, and Americans are justified in wanting to elect a leader who is cognitively sharp and possesses the physical stamina to endure a punishing travel schedule and long days that often involve too little sleep.
Tripping over a sandbag and then righting oneself, though, offers no insight into Biden’s physical or cognitive health.
The “Biden falls” story doesn’t tell us much. Biden tripped, in a minor accident that could have befallen any one of us. The concern (or feigned concern) over it also only reveals what we already know: that the president, as well as the leading presidential contender from the Republican party, are both elderly men, and that comes with risks, broken bones from falls among them. And it is true that falls among the elderly can cause serious injuries, which can lead to swift decline.
But Biden was fine; the only story is that he fell, which is only a story because he’s old. And “he’s old” doesn’t make for much of a partisan gotcha: if Biden is too old to be president, then so is Trump, and vice versa.
Instead, Biden detractors zero in on what they say are his deficits, tripping over a badly placed sandbag apparently among them.
Putting aside this specific story which truly is nothing more than “man trips”, an anecdote even less interesting than “dog bites man”, it’s worth asking which physical skills are actually necessary to do the job of president. One of the greatest American presidents, after all, used a wheelchair to get around, with no apparent impact on his ability to govern (yes, he also died in office – not ideal, but also not related to his disability).
Governor Greg Abbott of Texas is no less effective (and no less inclined toward a politics of cruelty than any other Republican) by his wheelchair usage. The question of which physical capacities a president needs is a complicated one. Is it enough to have the physical fitness to physically show up to the job every day? Or do we need a president to radiate a kind of strength and vitality that gives him or her a subtle advantage in negotiations?
Which basic physical skills – standing for long periods, navigating stairs easily, lifting one’s arms above one’s head, standing unassisted – reflect the broader fitness necessary to make it through an arduous presidential schedule?
His – and Trump’s – cognitive fitness are fair areas for inquiry. So too is their moral fitness, a scale on which Biden clearly surpasses the former president
I don’t know the answers to these questions, and I doubt even the most skilled doctors can draw clear and bright lines. What is obvious, though, is that cognitive fitness should be non-negotiable, and our demands for it similarly tuned to the requirements of an executive.
Biden is not a Strom Thurmond or a Dianne Feinstein, in office clearly past the ability to cognitively function at the level necessary to carry out basic legislative duties. Still, his – and Trump’s – cognitive fitness are fair areas for inquiry. So too is their moral fitness, a scale on which Biden clearly surpasses the former president.
If the 2024 election does pit Biden against Trump, it will again be an unprecedented one: the first election in US history in which the winner will be above 80 when he leaves office, assuming he survives all four years. This should indeed be cause for concern, and should spur on some serious soul-searching among Democratic party leaders in particular to ask how and why they’ve failed to cultivate and support fresh young talent in a party whose voter base skews younger, browner and more female.
Age, cognitive health and physical fitness are all fair concerns to have about a president or presidential contender. A man tripping over a sandbag, though, doesn’t tell us much about any of them.
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