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Joe Biden turns 78, will be oldest U.S. president — today

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WASHINGTON — Pres­i­dent-elect Joe Biden turned 78 on Fri­day. In two months, he’ll take the reins of a polit­i­cal­ly frac­tured nation fac­ing the worst pub­lic health cri­sis in a cen­tu­ry, high unem­ploy­ment and a reck­on­ing on racial injus­tice.

As he wres­tles with those issues, Biden will be attempt­ing to accom­plish anoth­er feat: demon­strate to Amer­i­cans that age is but a num­ber and he’s up to the job.

Biden will be sworn in as the old­est pres­i­dent in the nation’s his­to­ry, dis­plac­ing Ronald Rea­gan, who left the White House in 1989 when he was 77 years and 349 days old.

The age and health of both Biden and Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump — less than four years Biden’s junior — loomed through­out a race that was decid­ed by a younger and more diverse elec­torate and at a moment when the nation is fac­ing no short­age of issues of con­se­quence.

Out of the gate, Biden will be keen to demon­strate he’s got the vig­or to serve.

“It’s cru­cial that he and his staff put him­self in the posi­tion ear­ly in his pres­i­den­cy where he can express what he wants with a crisp­ness that’s not always been his strength,” said Ross Bak­er, a polit­i­cal sci­en­tist at Rut­gers Uni­ver­si­ty who has advised leg­is­la­tors from both par­ties. “He has got to build up cred­i­bil­i­ty with the Amer­i­can peo­ple that he’s phys­i­cal­ly and men­tal­ly up to the job.”

Through­out the cam­paign, Trump, 74, didn’t miss a chance to high­light Biden’s gaffes and argue that the Demo­c­rat lacked the men­tal acu­ity to lead the nation. Both crit­ics and some back­ers of Biden wor­ried that he was send­ing the wrong mes­sage about his sta­mi­na by keep­ing a rel­a­tive­ly light pub­lic sched­ule while Trump barn­stormed bat­tle­ground states. Biden attrib­uted his light sched­ule to being cau­tious dur­ing the coro­n­avirus pan­dem­ic.

Some of Biden’s rivals in the Demo­c­ra­t­ic pri­ma­ry also made a case on age — while skip­ping Trump’s vit­ri­ol — by rais­ing the ques­tion of whether some­one of Biden’s and Trump’s gen­er­a­tion was the right per­son to lead a nation deal­ing with issues like cli­mate change and racial inequal­i­ty.

Bri­an Ott, a Mis­souri State Uni­ver­si­ty com­mu­ni­ca­tions pro­fes­sor who stud­ies pres­i­den­tial rhetoric, said Biden was hard­ly impres­sive as a cam­paign­er, but has proven far more effec­tive with his pub­lic remarks since Elec­tion Day.

Ott said Biden’s vic­to­ry speech was poignant, and his empa­thy showed in a vir­tu­al dis­cus­sion that he held ear­li­er this week with front­line health­care work­ers. The president-elect’s expe­ri­ence — a com­bi­na­tion of age and near­ly 50 years in pol­i­tics — con­veys more clear­ly through the prism of gov­ern­ing than the chaos of cam­paign­ing, he said.

“The rhetoric of gov­ern­ing, unlike the rhetoric of cam­paign­ing, is col­lab­o­ra­tive rather than adver­sar­i­al,” Ott said.

Biden’s rel­a­tive­ly advanced age also puts a greater pre­mi­um on the qual­i­ty of his staff, Bak­er said. His choice of Sen. Kamala Har­ris, near­ly 20 years younger than him, as his run­ning mate effec­tive­ly acknowl­edged his age issue. Biden has described him­self as a tran­si­tion­al pres­i­dent but hasn’t ruled out run­ning for a sec­ond term.

“He’s well served in mak­ing it known from Day One that she’s ready to go,” Bak­er said of Har­ris. “She’s got to be in the images com­ing out of the White House. They also need to, in terms of their mes­sag­ing, high­light her inclu­sion in what­ev­er the impor­tant issue or debate is going on in the White House.”

Biden, in a Sep­tem­ber inter­view with CNN, promised to be “total­ly trans­par­ent” about all facets of his health if elect­ed but he hasn’t said how he’ll do that.

The cam­paign has made the case that Biden isn’t your aver­age sep­tu­a­ge­nar­i­an.

His physi­cian, Dr. Kevin O’Connor, in a med­ical report released by the cam­paign in Decem­ber, described Biden as “healthy, vig­or­ous … fit to suc­cess­ful­ly exe­cute the duties of the Pres­i­den­cy, to include those as Chief Exec­u­tive, Head of State and Com­man­der in Chief.”

O’Connor report­ed that Biden works out five days a week. The pres­i­dent-elect told sup­port­ers that dur­ing the pan­dem­ic he has relied on home work­outs involv­ing a Pelo­ton bike, tread­mill and weights.

In 1988, Biden suf­fered two life-threat­en­ing brain aneurysms, an expe­ri­ence that he wrote in his mem­oir shaped him into the “kind of man I want to be.” O’Connor also not­ed in his report that Biden has an irreg­u­lar heart­beat, but it has not required any med­ica­tion or oth­er treat­ment. He also had his gall blad­der removed in 2003.

A Sep­tem­ber arti­cle by a group of researchers in the Jour­nal on Active Aging con­clud­ed that both Biden and Trump are “super-agers” and are like­ly to out­live their Amer­i­can con­tem­po­raries and main­tain their health beyond the end of the next pres­i­den­tial term.

Some of Biden’s White House pre­de­ces­sors left behind bread­crumbs about the dos and don’ts of demon­strat­ing pres­i­den­tial vig­or, said Edward Frantz, a pres­i­den­tial his­to­ri­an at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Indi­anapo­lis.

Rea­gan made sure the pub­lic saw him chop­ping wood and rid­ing hors­es. Trump, after being diag­nosed with the coro­n­avirus, quick­ly returned to a busy cam­paign sched­ule — hold­ing dozens of crowd­ed ral­lies in bat­tle­ground states in the final weeks of the cam­paign. Those events flout­ed coro­n­avirus guide­lines on social dis­tanc­ing, wear­ing masks and avoid­ing large gath­er­ings.

In 1841, William Har­ri­son, 68, attempt­ed to show off his vig­or by deliv­er­ing a lengthy inau­gur­al address with­out a coat or hat. Weeks lat­er, Har­ri­son, then the old­est pres­i­dent elect­ed in U.S. his­to­ry, devel­oped a cold that turned into pneu­mo­nia that would kill him just a month into his pres­i­den­cy. It’s dis­put­ed whether Harrison’s ill­ness was relat­ed to his inau­gur­al address.

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