US Presidents and the relative age of their successors

When he takes office on January 20th, Joe Biden will become the oldest ever US President. And, assuming Donald Trump doesn’t rage quit the Oval Office before then, it’ll also mark the second time in a row a US President has handed over to a successor who’s older than them after Trump replaced the younger Obama in 2017.

That got me wondering about how different Presidents and their successors have been in age over the years. Because time remains stubbornly linear, and no one has yet lived to be the 289 years old they’d need to be older than George Washington, we’d expect that it would be more likely for a President to be replaced by a younger successor than an older one.

There have been 44 Presidential transitions so far (George Washington obviously didn’t succeed anyone, though he was older than King George III and Prime Minister William Pitt) and 31 of them have seen Presidents being followed by younger successors, while 13 Presidents have been older than the man they replaced. Those thirteen were:

Andrew Jackson, 118 days older than John Quincy Adams
William Henry Harrison, 9 years and 299 days older than Martin Van Buren
Zachary Taylor, 10 years and 343 days older than James Polk
James Buchanan, 13 years and 214 days older than Franklin Pierce
Andrew Johnson, 45 days older than Abraham Lincoln
Chester Arthur, 2 years and 45 days older than James Garfield
Benjamin Harrison, 3 years and 210 days older than Grover Cleveland
William Howard Taft, 1 year and 42 days older than Theodore Roosevelt
Woodrow Wilson, 261 days older than William Howard Taft
Lyndon Johnson, 8 years and 275 days older than John F Kennedy
Ronald Reagan, 13 years and 238 days older than Jimmy Carter
George W Bush, 44 days older than Bill Clinton
Donald Trump, 15 years and 51 days older than Barack Obama

(Joe Biden is 3 years and 206 days older than Donald Trump)

The only other time both a President and his successor were followed by someone older was the early 20th century — Theodore Roosevelt succeeded by the older William Howard Taft in 1908, who was then defeated (with the assistance of Roosevelt) by the older Woodrow Wilson in 1912. However, the age difference between the youngest and oldest of the three (Roosevelt and Wilson) is less than that between Trump and Biden.

Also of note in that list is that George W Bush and Bill Clinton are the closest in age of any two successive US Presidents, born just over six weeks apart in 1946, while Bush and Donald Trump are the closest in age of any two Presidents, having just 22 days between them. (The closest gap between a President and a younger successor is the 160 days between Ulysses Grant and Rutherford Hayes)

Biden will be the first President to be older than four of his predecessors (Trump, Obama, Bush and Clinton). Previously, the record was three, held by James Buchanan (older than Pierce, Filmore and Polk) and Ronald Reagan (older than Carter, Ford and Nixon).

The 15 years between Obama and Trump is the biggest gap between a younger President and their older successor. The counterpart in the other direction is when Dwight Eisenhower handed over to John F Kennedy, who was 26 years and 227 days younger than him, beating the previous 17 years and 290 days between James Buchanan and Abraham Lincoln.

In an interesting curio, those records would have been broken and remained to this day whoever won the 1960 and 2016 elections: the 22 years and 86 days between Eisenhower and Richard Nixon (who was defeated by Kennedy) would have been just marginally larger than the 22 years and 68 days between George HW Bush and Bill Clinton, and the 13 years and 282 days between Obama and Hillary Clinton would have just beaten the gap between Reagan and Carter.

Generally, the transitions to a younger President follow the sort of pattern you would expect as incoming Presidents are mostly a few years younger than their predecessors with only a few being noticeably so. Only 10 Presidents were ten years or more younger than their predecessor: Martin Van Buren, John Tyler, Lincoln, Grant, Theodore Roosevelt, Kennedy, Carter, George HW Bush, Clinton and Obama. The steady progression has been such that there are only three decades (up to the 1960s, when Obama was born) that have not had Presidents born in them: the 1810s, the 1930s and the 1950s. While a 50s-born President still seems possible (it would require a candidate aged between 64 and 74 at the next election or even Vice-President Pence taking office), the 1930s will likely not be so lucky — unless Joe Biden is followed by someone even older than him.

Many, many things. PhD student at QMUL. Councillor. Ran the 2019 London Marathon for Brain Research UK. @nickjbarlow on Twitter.

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