Analysis & Comment

Opinion | Is Pete Buttigieg Just Too Young to Be President?

Finland just elected the world’s youngest prime minister, Sanna Marin, who’s 34. Time magazine named Greta Thunberg, 16, its youngest-ever “Person of the Year.”

Even before I could mention their names to Pete Buttigieg, who’s vying to become the youngest American president, he brought them up. He also brought up Jacinda Ardern, the prime minister of New Zealand, who was 37 when she took office, and Emmanuel Macron, who became the president of France at 39.

That’s how old Buttigieg, now 37, would be at his inauguration.

“You’re seeing a generation of leaders around the world emerging, and it feels like the kind of thing that the U.S. would be on the forefront of, just because we’re a country that values a look to the future,” he told me in an interview on Thursday morning. “I think it’s our style.”

“This country was founded by 20-somethings,” he added, referring to the fact that Aaron Burr, Alexander Hamilton and James Madison, for example, were in their 20s on July 4, 1776. Thomas Jefferson was 33. John Hancock was 39.

Donald Trump is 73, meaning that he has more than a half-century of life lessons on some of them. How does that show? Well, an hour before I connected with Buttigieg, the president saw fit to tweet that Time’s choice of Thunberg, a Swedish climate-change activist, was “so ridiculous” and that she should “work on her Anger Management problem.” Facing imminent impeachment, he started a Twitter spat with a teenage girl.

Trump is the “most extreme example of the fact that while wisdom and age may be related, they’re very much not the same thing,” Buttigieg said.

Still. Age isn’t irrelevant. America is much, much bigger than Finland and much, much more complicated than it was during the Revolutionary War. In a country so powerful, at such a perilous time, is Buttigieg simply too young and too green to lead the way?

It’s the question that hovers over a presidential campaign whose success has stunned the political world. It predates concerns about his work as a consultant with McKinsey or his trouble building support among African-Americans. It suggests an intensity of ambition and a presumptuousness that make his detractors bristle.

And even now, after first-place finishes in some recent polls of Democrats in Iowa and New Hampshire, he’s pressed about whether someone with his short résumé, capped by two terms as the mayor of a city of just 100,000 people, could possibly be up to the presidency and pass muster with enough Americans to get elected.

He told me that voters and journalists ask him about his age more often than they do about his sexual orientation. (If elected, he’d be the first openly gay president.)

So we spent most of a nearly hourlong car ride between campaign stops in the New York City area talking about it. He conceded that the longer you’re alive, “the more you learn,” and that there are lessons and life passages still in the offing for him. He’d like to be a parent, but if he succeeds on his current quest, he’d become the leader of the free world first.

“A lot of things in my life have been out of sequence,” he said. “I was a mayor before I got married. I was a war veteran before I had dated.” He was referring to his seven months in Afghanistan and recognizing that while he has been precociously ahead of the game in many regards, he was behind in others. It was only four years ago, at 33, that he finally had a serious romantic relationship — with the man, Chasten, who is now his husband.

Age has played out in surprising ways in the Democratic primary. While Buttigieg is unusually young, the other three candidates grouped with him at the head of the pack — Joe Biden, 77; Elizabeth Warren, 70; and Bernie Sanders, 78 — are unusually old. Sanders had a heart attack in October, and Biden’s energy has visibly dimmed, to a point where some of his aides and supporters have sought to reassure voters by whispering about the possibility that he’d want to serve just one term.

The oldest candidate, Sanders, is by far the most popular among the youngest Democratic voters, getting the support of 52 percent of those between the ages of 18 and 34 in a national Quinnipiac poll released on Tuesday. Buttigieg got just 2 percent of that group, in contrast with 12 percent of Democratic voters between 35 and 49, 12 percent of those between 50 and 64 and 11 percent of those 65 and older. He attributed that to younger voters’ attraction to Sanders’s less pragmatic, more ideologically pure vision.

It’s certainly not because Buttigieg hasn’t courted them. In this “O.K. Boomer” moment of younger Americans’ disgust with the income inequality, social injustices and climate change that older Americans have bequeathed them, he has claimed a generational perspective that separates him from his rivals for the Democratic nomination. He notes that he was still in high school when the Columbine massacre happened; that he had just started college when the 9/11 terrorist attacks occurred; and that he’ll be living with America’s failures longer than his older rivals will.

He also makes the case that people of Biden’s, Warren’s and Sanders’s age have had their chance to fix things. Shouldn’t someone with an arguably fresher outlook — someone from outside Washington — take a turn? With that reasoning he frames political vulnerabilities as political virtues.

“You know the stat about three of the last four presidents emerging from the summer of 1946?” he asked, referring to Trump’s birth in June 1946, George W. Bush’s in July of that year and Bill Clinton’s in August. “It means that one generation has been in charge for a very long time.”

But his youth is in some ways a bind that puts me in mind of the even greater predicament for female candidates. They’re expected to show that they’re as tough as men, but then that toughness is described as bossiness, shrillness. Buttigieg has to muster extra poise, extra confidence, lest any deficit be interpreted as immaturity. But then that poise and confidence, in the context of his age, are interpreted as arrogance. His detractors constantly tell me that he’s cocky — or robotic.

“One of the things I get is, ‘Why aren’t you more passionate?’” he said. “I’m very passionate. But I’m also very disciplined. If I weren’t, it would be harder to be taken seriously.”

Is he maybe too disciplined? Too contained? Wondering if he’d yet confronted the responsibility of helping to care for a sick parent, I asked about his own parents, and learned only then that his father died last January. While I’d kept reasonably close tabs on Buttigieg’s candidacy, this was something that he hadn’t mentioned enough that I’d heard it. And he said relatively little about it during our chat.

The Constitution decrees that a House member must be at least 25, a senator at least 30, a president at least 35. No American president has been under 40, and only two took office before the age of 45: Teddy Roosevelt, who was 42, and John F. Kennedy, who was 43.

Shouldn’t and doesn’t that give Buttigieg pause?

“Of course you have those moments,” he acknowledged. “We’re talking about a role of unbelievable importance and complexity and challenge. And yet every person who’s done it has been a mortal, a human being — and of course so much depends not just on the individual but on how you build a team.”

“The audacity of proposing to do it at a young age is nowhere near the audacity of proposing to do it at all,” he said. So age “becomes like a detail.”

He repeated something that he has said scores if not hundreds of times on the campaign trail: As mayor of South Bend, Ind., for the past eight years, he has had a kind of executive experience that someone who has served in Congress for that long or longer hasn’t. Besides, he said, experience isn’t the only font of wisdom. Education matters. Intuition, too.

He comes armed with historical examples beyond the founders of people who made remarkable contributions early on. “I’m not going to compare myself to Martin Luther King,” he said, “but he’s certainly an example of somebody who had a huge impact, mainly in his 30s.” King died at 39. Buttigieg noted that Stephen Biko, one of the most prominent anti-apartheid activists in South Africa in the 1970s, died at 30.

Trump has mockingly referred to Buttigieg as Alfred E. Neuman, the gaptoothed, big-eared, boyish mascot for Mad magazine. He did so at a rally in Pennsylvania on Tuesday, asking his audience, “Can you believe he’s doing well?”

“I dream about him,” Trump added. “It’s true.”

Buttigieg’s response?

“I don’t want to be anywhere near that guy’s dreams,” he told me.

It’s a good answer. Maybe he’d match up well against Trump. I’m not sure, and how I wish I were, because the likeliest Trump slayer is the Democratic nominee I want and America needs. Both substantively and in terms of electability, Buttigieg would be better off if he were older, with higher positions under his belt, but then all of the leading Democrats have worrying shortcomings. His youth is a concern. It shouldn’t be a deal-breaker.

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