Mazen A. Skaf is a partner and managing director with Strategic Decisions Group (SDG), an international management-consulting firm renowned for its expertise in strategy development and implementation both in the private sector and public sector.
Only four times in U.S. history have we elected a president who was 10 or more years older than the outgoing occupant of the office. Next January, if either Hillary Clinton, 69, or Donald Trump, 70, succeed 55-year-old Barack Obama, it will happen again.
I pointed this out recently on social media and floated the hypothesis that when the electorate hands the White House to someone from an older cohort it is usually at a time of crisis. (The analysis excludes cases in which the president succeeded to the office as a result of the death of the incumbent. But subsequent elections to the office, as in the cases of Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson, are included.)
Of course, the converse doesn’t hold—there have been many major crises in which the electorate did not turn to a candidate from an older cohort: Abraham Lincoln and the looming Civil War, FDR and the Depression, Obama and the financial meltdown, and many others. But beyond the question of what constitutes a real crisis, the discussion that ensued raised some intriguing questions about the numbers themselves.
Some participants pointed out that life expectancy has increased over the years, so that with an aging population it’s more likely that older candidates like Clinton and Trump would emerge. But in the earlier years of the U.S., when life expectancy was much lower than today, U.S. presidents were in general much older. Whereas in the twentieth century, with life expectancy increasing considerably, we tended to elect generally younger presidents (at least until 1980 with the election of Ronald Reagan). Further, an elected president will age by four years in a one-term presidency or eight years over two terms before the next president is inaugurated—aging faster than any movement in the average age of the population.
Moreover, three of the previous occurrences took place before 1900, when life expectancy for the U.S. stood at about 47 years old. In 1841, William Henry Harrison, 68, succeeded 58-year-old Martin Van Buren in the midst of a major recession that had begun with the Panic of 1837. In 1849, Zachary Taylor, 64, followed James K. Polk, 53, after two years of war with Mexico and amid rising tensions over the expansion of slavery. In 1857, James Buchanan, 65, succeeded 53-year-old Franklin Pierce, as anti-slavery and pro-slavery forces battled over “Bleeding Kansas.” Since 1900, the only other instance occurred when Ronald Reagan, at age 69, succeeded 56-year-old Jimmy Carter in 1981, ending the 444-day Iran hostage crisis.
Other participants in the discussion observed that President Obama is among the younger presidents at the time they took office and that a better measure for comparison might be the average age of U.S. presidents-to-date at inauguration. That average peaked at 59 with the second president, John Adams, who was 61. Then it generally declined to 55 years old with only a few small upward bumps over the years.
In the period between 1797, when Adams became president, and 1897, when William McKinley was inaugurated, the president at inauguration exceeded the average age of elected presidents-to-date four times—Andrew Jackson, Benjamin Harrison, Zachary Taylor, and James Buchanan. Harrison, who was about 10 years older than the average age of elected presidents-to-date at the time he was inaugurated, bumped up the average by about 1.1 years, whereas the other three caused a bump of only about half a year each. (It is worth noting that with the passage of time, the “average age of presidents-to-date at inauguration” gets harder to move one way or the other as more presidents are counted in the average.)
From 1897 until today, the average age of presidents at inauguration stayed in a tight range between 54.8 years old and 55.6 years old. In fact, the average dipped below 55 in 1925 with the inauguration of Calvin Coolidge (52 at the time) and it would have stayed below 55 had it not been pulled up briefly by Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower. Then the average dipped again below 55 with the inauguration of JFK and stayed below 55 until the inauguration of Ronald Reagan, who added four-tenths of a year to the average.
In sum, the passing of the presidential torch from a member of a younger generational cohort to a member of an older generation is relatively rare in our history, and rarer still since the 19th century.
Since 1953, with the inauguration of Eisenhower, another intriguing pattern has emerged. The age of Republican presidents has been at the average or higher, while the age of Democratic presidents remained at the average or lower. Further, that period witnessed the youngest elected president in our history, JFK at age 43 in 1961, and the oldest president to be elected to date, Reagan at age 69 in 1981. Looking at the candidates in this year’s election, Trump’s age is in line with the Republican trend during that 64-year period, while Clinton’s is somewhat novel on the Democratic side.
On the four occasions when the electorate turned to older and presumably wiser heads were they right to do so? In attempting an answer, it’s important to maintain a distinction between the quality of a decision and its outcome. Fully addressing the quality of the voters’ collective decisions in these four instances would require an assessment of the available alternatives at the time, the general preferences and aspirations of the population, and the information available to them when they voted. That’s well beyond the scope of this discussion, but we do know the outcomes.
William Henry Harrison died after only 32 days in office; Zachary Taylor died after serving 16 months. As a result of their brief tenures, they are consistently ranked as among the poorer presidents in surveys of historians and political scientists—when they’re not excluded from such surveys altogether. James Buchanan, who served one full term leading up to the Civil War, is often ranked dead last in such polls. Ronald Reagan is often included among the top ten.
It is said that we get better as we get older—that as we age, we gain a richer perspective, more experience and deeper self-knowledge, wisdom and maturity. In an election year when we will certainly be choosing a president from an older cohort, let’s hope that’s true.