United States

[OPINION] Choosing a president

Edilberto C. de Jesus

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[OPINION] Choosing a president
Considerations of presidential mortality and frailty raise questions on public expectations of the president’s role, as well as the governance style and the values voters look for in their leader

Americans are agonizing over the potential direction of their country after the debate between the likely contenders for the US presidency, former president Donald Trump and incumbent president Joe Biden.

The debate, described in a New York Times column as “The Ghastly vs. the Ghostly,” added little new information on the policy differences between the two candidates on the hot-button issues of abortion, immigration, climate change, and foreign policy. 

A vintage Trump delivered his usual script of ad hominem attacks, unsupported assertions, and outright lies. Biden defended the contested policies that his administration and his party had advocated and implemented, but less vigorously than his followers wanted.

Trump’s performance showed that lies, loudly and frequently repeated, can become normalized. Critical to the assessment of the ethics and integrity of candidates, these  are ignored as irrelevant in evaluating their fitness for public responsibility. Lies about the handling of COVID-19, the conduct of the 2020 elections, the January 6 attack on the Capitol, and White House orchestration of cases against him went virtually unchallenged. The lies were well known to the moderators, but they had been disarmed by Trump’s warning to his base that they would be biased for Biden 

They successfully avoided blame on this charge, receiving a rare commendation from Trump for their fairness. Trump gets away with the slur “crooked” Biden, who was never indicted nor investigated for any crime.  Twice impeached, for abuse of power and obstruction of Congress and then for incitement of insurrection, it was Trump who was criminally convicted in a jury trial for filing false bank records.

The debate helped Trump focus public attention on the issue that he had pushed front and center – Biden’s physical and mental condition. Trump is only three years younger than Biden and hardly a model of lucid reasoning himself, but he appeared more vigorous and had a louder voice. In an environment dominated by mass media, the image is the message. 

In the ‘60s, Richard Nixon lost votes to Jack Kennedy, who came across the screen as a physically more robust and more trustworthy candidate than Tricky Dick. Television coverage provided audiovisual evidence of Biden’s frail voice, uncertain gait, and verbal stumbles. Biden was unable to allay voter concerns that he was too old for the office. A survey showed 72% of respondents, who had watched the debate, believing that Biden should bow out of the presidential race. Biden admitted his physical decline, but, showing  stronger signs of life in public appearances after the debate, maintained that he was still fit for the job.


Electoral victory brings the winner many benefits, including immunity from criminal prosecution during his term. But not immunity from death. While duration of service does not necessarily translate to quality of performance, completing the full term is important. Failure is unavoidably disruptive, triggering a complex transition process to install a successor. 

Since 1776, eight American presidents have died with their boots on, including four shot down by assassin’s bullets. The oldest president to die in office was William Henry Harrison. Elected at 68, he holds the record for the shortest presidential tenure in American history. He delivered a long, inaugural address on a cold, wet day without adequate clothing and, 31 days later, succumbed to a respiratory infection. Warren G. Harding was only 55, when he won the presidency in 1921. Seventeen months into his term, while in San Francisco on a cross-country tour, he suffered a fatal stroke or heart attack. 

Medical care has vastly improved since the 1920s and people are generally enjoying longer life spans. Ronald Reagan, who also stopped a bullet, won reelection at 73 and served a full, second term. Actuarial experts cannot predict how long a specific individual will live. But they would place their bets on younger against older aspirants. The 2024 candidates would assume office 23 and 26 years older than Harding, the youngest, sitting president to die of natural causes. They would break Reagan’s record as oldest to win election by five to eight years.

Staying alive, moreover, is not the only goal. Voters also want some assurance that the presidents they elect, however long they last in office, will have clear command of their faculties and the ability to discharge their duties throughout their term. Given these questions, should there be a physical fitness test for the presidency? What should the standards be?  Excellence in one-on-one public debates will not be the most important function of a president. The candidate who can better provide ethical, effective, and democratic government should win. But, first, he has to win the votes.

Considerations of presidential mortality and frailty raise questions on public expectations of the president’s role, as well as the governance style and the values voters look for in their leader. Physical vigor and comeliness make a candidate more appealing. It is tempting to equate physical attributes with managerial or even moral virtues like decisiveness, strength of character or fortitude. It is also as wrong as the way ancient societies identified sickness with sin. 

Trump and Biden are within the same, vulnerable age group. If compelled to choose between them, voters must determine who is the more risky choice. Trump boasted in the debate that he could end the Ukraine war in a day, even before he formally assumes the presidency. Americans and, even more, Ukrainians will want to know: at what and at whose cost? 

Trump supporters argue that America’s enemies are more afraid of Trump – because they fear someone willful, headstrong, and unpredictable. These same characteristics also make Americans more fearful, especially those concerned with the preservation of democracy. Trump has said that, once elected, he would be a dictator, but only for one day. His opponents fear the authoritarian thrust will last more than one day – and that he can inflict in one day damage to America’s democratic guardrails that may take decades to repair. – Rappler.com

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  1. ET

    President Marcos Jr. shares a similar mindset with former US President and current Presidential Candidate Donald Trump. If he had the latter’s vigor, loud voice, and aggressiveness, we would be in much greater trouble.

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