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White House / WHITE HOUSE

The Graying of the President

President Obama and first lady note the physical toll of the presidency.

(Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

June 15, 2011

When President Obama stopped by a factory in North Carolina earlier this week, a worker showed him a photo he took with the president three years earlier on the campaign trail—a reminder that life in the White House isn’t necessarily conducive to aging gracefully.

(PICTURES: Our Aging Presidents)

“I looked so much younger then,” Obama mused. “So it’s true, I’ve got a lot more gray hair now than I did the last time I visited. But I have a better plane, so it’s a fair trade.”


Most polls show Obama has managed to keep his approval ratings above his disapproval ratings—a nifty feat considering his presidency has been dogged by high unemployment rates, three wars, and spending and deficit-reduction battles with GOP lawmakers. But the president light-heartedly acknowledges that Father Time and the stress of the office are getting the best of him.

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Jokes about his graying hair are becoming part of his standard shtick during public appearances. He again made a self-deprecating remark in Puerto Rico on Tuesday, noting that he had fewer gray hairs when he visited the island during the campaign. The comedian Seth Meyer even joked at the White House Correspondents' Association Dinner earlier this year that the president was showing the stress of the job and might want to consider taking up smoking again (he reportedly quit the habit after taking office).

But on Monday, first lady Michelle Obama offered a more serious assessment as she reflected on the physical manifestations of the weight of the presidency on her husband.

"I see the sadness and worry that's creasing his face," she said during a speech at a Democratic National Committee fundraiser in Pasadena, Calif. She added: "He reads every word, every memo, so he is better prepared than the people briefing him. This man doesn't take a day off."

It's hard to say if Obama, who will turn 50 in August, is aging any better or worse than his Oval Office predecessors. But if you take a look at before-and-after-photos of some of his predecessors, it appears the 44th president is following a well-worn path of accelerated silvering.

When President George W. Bush came took office in 2001, he had few wrinkles and salt-and-pepper hair. Eight years, a terrorist attack, and two wars later, Bush’s hair was a shock of gray and his face creased with wrinkles. President Clinton looked more bloated and added more than a touch-of-gray after surviving impeachment proceedings and the Republican Revolution. And President Lyndon Johnson looked weathered after tense years in the White House that included legislative highs (passage of the Great Society reforms and the Civil Rights Act) and lows on the international front (the escalation of the Vietnam War).

Clarence Lasby, a University of Texas historian, said that with all the problems Obama faces on the domestic and international stage his hair shouldn’t just be graying; it should be falling out.

“He looks considerably aged, and he does have a lot more gray now,” said Lasby, the author of Eisenhower’s Heart Attack. “He’s just been hit over the head with far more problems than most presidents would ever have to confront, with the exception of Franklin Roosevelt, who dealt with the Great Depression and World War II.”

One physician at the Cleveland Clinic, Dr. Michael Rozien, who has reviewed available medical histories of presidents going back to Theodore Roosevelt, concludes that the high-stress job ages the commander-in-chief twice as fast as a regular person.

But Stephen Hess, a presidential scholar at the Brookings Institution who has worked for four presidents, says that history shows that a few extra pounds or a little gray on the president isn’t worth worrying about too much.

“There’s no doubt that these folks are aging more quickly than people of their same age,” said Hess, who worked in the Eisenhower, Nixon, Ford, and Carter administrations. “Then again, no one has died in office from something related to fatigue.”

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