The case for youth leadership: why our next President should be under 40.
In November 1960, John F. Kennedy, then a Senator from Massachusetts, was elected the 35th President of the United States. Born in 1917, he was then 43, the youngest person ever elected to the White House. More than fifty years before him, the youngest person ever to serve as President, Theodore Roosevelt, ascended to the office after the assassination of William McKinley in September 1901. He was 42 at the time. Both men went on to serve with wisdom and distinction, and both Kennedy and TR are remembered among the strongest of the 20th century Presidents.
Last November, 2016, a minority of voters in the United States elected the oldest person ever to serve as President: Donald J. Trump, 70 at the time of his inauguration. His opponent, who beat him in the popular vote by over 2.8 million votes, Hillary Rodham Clinton, was 69 at the time of the election. Both were as old, or older, than the previous record-holders of geriatric Presidents: Ronald Reagan, elected in 1980 at age 69, and William Henry Harrison, elected 1840, also 69. Indeed, in the past century, the average age of a president at election has skewed upward, while at the same time the perception of the American people about their political system has never been more negative.
I’m not necessarily saying there’s a causal relationship between the two trends, but isn’t it time — especially now — to elect someone young to the Presidency? If what we’re looking for is a change of political vision and direction, a generational change — which was what Kennedy represented in 1961 and Roosevelt in 1901 — should be one of the things we’re looking for.
The U.S. Constitution states that no one shall serve as President who has not yet attained the age of 35 years. (It does not say that one must be 35 to be elected, just to serve). The next regularly scheduled inauguration will occur on January 20, 2021, which means that any person born on or before January 19, 1986 could be President of the United States. While I’m not very comfortable with the labels usually given to American generations, someone born in the first half of the 1980s would probably be labeled “Generation Y” or maybe even a “Millennial” depending on how you define it. Personally, I think that the American political system, and the world, would greatly benefit from a U.S. President with a differing generational vision from those who have recently served. It’s especially true now, as the world is transitioning away from political and economic conditions of the post-World War II order into a more uncertain and perhaps unstable future, which we’re already seeing with events like “Brexit.”
Why do I think we need a President under 40? Climate change is the number one reason. The younger a person who is alive on the Earth right now, the longer they’ll have to deal with the problems of climate change — and the more severe they’ll see those problems become in their lifetimes. We all have a personal stake in climate change right now, but imagine a young parent with a child born this year, 2017. That child will be 83 in the year 2100 — well within normal life spans, which will probably rise in industrialized countries in the 21st century. If we’re not successful at holding warming to 1.5° C by 2100, as the Paris Accord aims for, we’re going to have to deal with some challenging adaptation and mitigation problems at the dawn of the 22nd century. A U.S. President in office during the 2020s will be uniquely positioned to prepare for these challenges — or, God willing, prevent them from coming to pass. For this reason I want someone in the Oval Office with a personal stake in what the world will be like in 2100. If, to see this personal stake, all the President has to do is look to his or her infant or toddler child playing on the Oval Office carpet, as John F. Kennedy, Jr. did as a baby in 1962, this might make a world of difference.
Secondly, as the events of the disastrous 2016 elections proved, the American people seem to want and need a leader with a radically different relationship to “politics as usual.” I think I seriously underestimated this need early in the 2016 cycle, when I, perhaps incongruously with the argument of this article, praised political experience as the virtue we should have focused on in that year. Instead, America elected a total political outsider. Trump’s lack of political acumen is but one item on the long list of his egregious faults, but the notion of choosing someone who hasn’t previously made a career of laboring in the “swamp” of Washington politics isn’t, in and of itself, a bad idea. Trump is likely to make our politics much more toxic, not less, before 2020, but there will probably remain an opening for someone who can rise above our hyper-partisan atmosphere, or at least engage with it in a different way. This too seems to have a generational component. The first political memories of someone born in the 1980s are likely to date from the Bill Clinton era — a high point of political toxicity. A young President would internalize this background in unique and potentially creative ways that an older politician arguably couldn’t.
Thirdly, we need someone as President for whom the prejudices and associations of older generations don’t have the same impact. Since the Cold War era, the terms “socialist” or “socialism” have been political curse-words, and a politician could smear an otherwise good idea simply by calling it “socialism” (like the now-antiquated epithet “socialized medicine,” bandied about in the Clinton era). People born since 1980, however, have no personal connection to Cold War prejudices; to them, something like a single-payer health care plan — which in 1994 was called “socialized medicine” — looks like a pretty good idea. Personally, I would love to have a President who regards discrimination against LGBT people to be as archaic, antiquated, illogical and obviously wrong as most people of my generation (I’m in my mid-40s) regard the Jim Crow laws of the earlier 20th century. The normalization of LGBT rights in American society is the next step in full equality for LGBT people. That can only happen in a generational shift.
More than 50 years ago, JFK showed America, and the world, how youthful exuberance and a shift of generational values could truly change the United States and the world. In the years since the 1960s we’ve largely lost sight of that kind of idealism. I think it’s time to rediscover it. Electing a young President is one way to do it.