In every general election campaign he has waged, Barack Obama has been the youngest contender on the ballot. He turns 50 tomorrow and the streak appears safe.
In the 2012 presidential campaign, Obama is likely to still be the youngest candidate in the field as all of the Republican challengers who have announced a bid for their party’s nomination are older than he is.
As he did in 2008, when national exit polls showed him winning 66 percent of voters under age 30, Obama probably will try to make his age an asset when he runs for re-election.
“For all of his youth, he’s grayer and his wrinkles are deeper,” said Bruce Buchanan, a presidential scholar at the University of Texas at Austin. “Given the rigors of that job, youth can be an advantage.”
Obama is celebrating his birthday tonight, a day in advance, in his adopted hometown of Chicago with a campaign fundraiser that will feature fellow Chicagoans jazz pianist Herbie Hancock and singer Jennifer Hudson.
The concert and dinner for more than 1,500 donors will be at the Aragon Entertainment Center, a Spanish-style concert hall on the city’s north side that can accommodate up to 4,500 people. Ticket prices range from $50 to the legal maximum of $35,800.
The money will go to the Obama Victory Fund 2012, a joint Obama campaign and Democratic National Committee fund, according to a Democratic official who wasn’t authorized to discuss the event and spoke on condition of anonymity. Obama’s campaign can accept $5,000 of each $35,800 contribution.
After the performances by Hudson and Hancock, Obama will attend a private dinner for a smaller group of 80 to 100 people at the same venue. He also will conduct a video teleconference with supporters at more than 1,100 organizing meetings across the country.
As part of the birthday fundraising, representatives from the Democratic Party, the White House and Obama’s re-election campaign will fan out nationwide for events in Boston, Washington, New York and Los Angeles, as well as Tampa, Florida; Austin, Texas; and Oakland, California. Among those involved are former White House press secretary Robert Gibbs, deputy campaign manager Jen O’Malley Dillon, White House senior adviser David Plouffe, Obama campaign strategist David Axelrod and Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a member of Congress from Florida.
Obama’s re-election effort raised more than $86 million in the quarter ending June 30, eclipsing the combined haul of the 2012 Republican field.
The president’s fundraising was criticized by Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus in a conference call today with reporters.
“The fundraiser in chief is back in Chicago doing the thing that he’s really good at and that’s raising money to save his job,” Priebus said. “This president, while he’s in love with the sound of his own voice, he’s not in love with following through on his promises.”
Priebus, as well as Illinois Republican Party Chairman Pat Brady, noted the U.S. unemployment rate of 9.2 percent. He also pointed to a headline and story in today’s Chicago Tribune noting that more than 1,100 workers at 10 Illinois companies were told last month that they’ll be losing their jobs in plant closings or mass layoffs before the end of the year.
Tomorrow, on his actual birthday, Obama is scheduled to attend meetings at the White House.
Just as Bill Clinton marked a move to a post-World War II generation of American presidents, Obama and many of the Republicans competing for the White House represent another shift in the age cohort to leaders who weren’t yet adults during the height of the Vietnam War or the Civil Rights era.
Unless Texans Rick Perry or Ron Paul wins the Republican nomination, the 2012 campaign is likely to be the first modern presidential election in which neither major party candidate served in the military. Perry, 61, a governor still contemplating running, was an Air Force pilot, while Paul, 75, a congressman in his third White House bid, was an Air Force flight surgeon.
Former governors Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota, who turned 50 last November, and Jon Huntsman Jr. of Utah, who is 51, are closest in age to the president. Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, who leads in polls and fundraising among Republicans, is 64.
Among the potential Republican candidates who haven’t announced, former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin would, at 47, be the youngest if she enters the campaign.
Clinton, who entered the White House a year younger than Obama, was the last president to turn 50 while in office. He celebrated in August 1996 with a dinner at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York, as well as a $10 million gala at Radio City Music Hall to raise money for the Democratic National Committee and his re-election campaign.
Obama hasn’t said much publicly about his milestone birthday.
“I’m starting to think a little bit more about Medicare eligibility,” he joked during a July 15 news conference in Washington, referencing the federal health insurance program for senior citizens.
Although he typically projects a stress-free demeanor, Obama has shown signs of age while in office as he deals with a U.S. economy struggling to recover from the worst recession since the Great Depression. Most obvious are the speckles of gray hair on his head.
In his 2008 White House bid, Obama’s relative youth was the subtext of criticism from his main primary opponent, then-Senator Hillary Clinton, that he was too inexperienced to handle the presidency. One of her campaign’s most memorable television ads during the primaries suggested she was more ready to answer a 3 a.m. phone call to respond to a White House crisis.
After directing a mission that killed Osama bin Laden and handling other presidential challenges, Buchanan said Obama will no longer have to battle questions of inexperience.
“I don’t know what opposition candidate would be in such a position to wield such a charge,” he said.
Obama appears to be the healthiest and most robust under-50 president since Teddy Roosevelt, Buchanan said, pointing to Clinton’s struggle with his weight and John F. Kennedy’s back and other ailments.
“Age and conditioning go together well to create the stamina needed to do the work,” he said.
A 2010 physical exam released by the White House showed the president had a resting pulse of 56.
Obama increasingly plays golf on weekends, instead of heading to the basketball court as he more commonly did during the 2008 campaign and during the early days of his presidency.
In the general election, Obama had to navigate the politics of age against Senator John McCain of Arizona, who was 72 in November 2008 and would have been the oldest man ever elected president had he won.
“I don’t think that’s going to be the issue that people vote on,” Obama told the Chicago Tribune in April 2008 regarding McCain, a former Navy pilot who was a prisoner of war in Vietnam after being shot down. “People respect John McCain. They know he’s a tough guy. He’s gone through things that I think most of us can only imagine.”