Is Youth an Asset or a Liability to Politicians?

Theodore Roosevelt was 42 the day he took the oath of office to become President of the United States. John F. Kennedy was 43. Bill Clinton and Ulysses S. Grant were both 46.

On Saturday, Senator Barack Obama, D-Ill., celebrates his 46th birthday meaning the political wunderkind will be only 47 come election day. And, if elected on that Tuesday in November 2008, Obama would become the 5th youngest president in American history.

Youth: Asset or a Liability?

The Illinois senator's youthful good looks have led to comparisons, most notably, to John F. Kennedy, the last senator to move directly from a seat in the Capitol to the White House.

Certainly Obama stands out as a young man in his 40s among a field of presidential candidates whose eldest statesmen has nearly three decades on him.

"I don't think an age in the mid 40s is a liability," said Stephen Wayne, a professor and expert on the American Presidency at Georgetown University

"Inexperience with a lot of mistakes with corrections is a liability," said Wayne, referring to some of the recent missteps Obama has made in his campaign.

President Bill Clinton, who won his first elected office at 32, lost the Arkansas governorship to a Republican challenger in 1980. The loss, in large part, was attributed to his age and inexperience, but Clinton bounced back and retook the governor's office two years later.

Clinton served a total of 14 years statewide office, while Obama served as an Illinois state legislator for six years and is now in his third year of his first term as a U.S. Senator.

Using his age as an asset, Obama's campaign has worked hard to reach out to a younger audience for donations and support.

Official candidate webpages quickly popped up on popular social networking sites including and that are popular with a younger audience.

In a more negative light, Senator Obama has been targeted by fellow presidential candidates and media pundits who cite his political inexperience and question his debate performances.

Obama has increasingly sparred with Senator Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., the Democratic frontrunner in most national polls. Most recently, the two have traded barbs on the issue of nuclear deterrence.

After a Capitol Hill event on Thursday, Obama told the Associated Press that it would "a profound mistake for us to use nuclear weapons in any circumstance… involving civilians."

Clinton responded, saying that she does not believe "any president should make any blanket statements with respect to the use or nonuse of nuclear weapons."

Earlier this month, the two candidates argued over whether they would engage in direct meetings with foreign leaders such as those in North Korea, Iran, and Cuba.

Clinton would later describe Obama's approach to foreign policy as "irresponsible and naive".

Youth in the White House

Standing in front of the Illinois State Capitol to declare his presidential ambitions on a bitter cold day in February, Obama acknowledged, "I recognize there is a certain presumptuousness - a certain audacity - to this announcement."

And, although Obama's election would be historic in that he would be the first African American president, it would not be without precedent for his youth.

It was at the turn of the twentieth century that Theodore Roosevelt became the youngest man to ascend to the presidency. Vice President Roosevelt took over the office following the assassination of President McKinley in September 1901.

Known as a "trust buster" who lived by the proverb "speak softly and carry a big stick," Roosevelt became a national hero during the Spanish-American war as a lieutenant colonel of the Rough Rider Regiment.

The youngest person to be elected president was John F. Kennedy, a man born into his father's powerful political legacy.

That legacy of political and economic aristocracy, of a Harvard education and Hyannis Port yachts, and a father, Joseph Kennedy, who was a well known businessman, was both a benefit and burden for Kennedy.

But as the 1960 Democratic nominee for president, Kennedy had a record of military and legislative service behind him, as well as a Pulitzer Prize in history for "Profiles in Courage".

The candidate was charismatic and attractive to his supporters and those qualities were on full display in the famous and first televised 1960 debate with Republican counterpart Richard Nixon.

On the campaign trail, Nixon repeatedly challenged Kennedy on the issue of foreign policy experience calling for a president who could stand up to the menace of communism, a challenge he felt the Massachusetts senator had neither the experience nor the character to handle.

Young and In Charge

While Obama would be one of the youngest presidents in American history, politicians only half his age have gained substantial, albeit less prominent, political power.

Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, 27, is currently the youngest mayor of a major city. As President of the City Council, Ravenstahl took office after the death of Mayor Bob O'Connor. Ravenstahl faces his first mayoral election this November.

Mayor Sam Juhl, 19, of Roland, IA, population 1,324, is believed to be the youngest mayor in the country. He said he was elected mayor because nobody except him filed papers to run. In Roland the mayor does not have a vote on the council unless it is needed to break a tie.

Asked by ABC News about the current group of presidential contenders, Juhl said Obama, "seems extremely intelligent and he would be smart for the job."

"There are always going to be the people who say he's going to need more political experience. But I think there are going to be a mix of opinions. He has youthful vigor, like Kennedy and Roosevelt," the nation's youngest mayor concluded.

But the 2008 presidential election isn't only for the young.

If elected president, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., would be the oldest ever to take office at 73 in his first term.

Ronald Reagan, whom McCain and his Republican counterparts aim to emulate, took office at the age of 70.

The only constitutional requirement regarding the age of a president is that a candidate be 35 years of age or older. Certainly that leaves plenty of room for not just the young but also the young at heart.