The Youth Vote Moves On

Barack Obama was the Political Pied Piper of 2008. His campaign motivated millions of young people to finally come to the polls and pull the levers -- and not just for Obama, but other party members down the ticket. This upsurge in activity yielded sweeping power for the Democrats in Congress. But a year of Obama has come and gone, and so have many of his youthful supporters. This does not bode well for Democrats in 2010 and beyond.

Obama owes his presidency to the ranks of 18- to 24-year-olds who overwhelmingly supported him over John McCain (66%-32%). Obama tapped into their idealistic yearnings with promises to heal the divisions of our nation, to end the rancor of partisanship, and to stop the rise of the oceans. He would restore our international popularity and bring health care to the masses (without adding a dime to the deficit). He was a celebrity they could enjoy listening to and hearing from.  In contrast, John McCain was old and uncool, and by making him an avatar of George Bush, the Obama campaign tapped into a deep well of longstanding anger.

He made them promises symbolized by hope and change.

But those promises have been broken, and so has much of the enthusiasm of the millions of voters who supported him. Even Markos Moulitsas, founder of the Daily Kos, bemoans the fact that the young have fallen by the wayside:
Only 41 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds, a key constituency for Democrats in both 2006 and 2008, are likely to vote, compared to 49 percent likely to sit things out.

What makes the problem more worrisome for Democrats is that the Republicans enjoy the intensity edge: Republicans in every age group are far more likely to vote than Democrats. We have seen this dynamic play out in the two recent elections for the governors of New Jersey and Virginia. The young people who propelled Obama to the presidency stayed home this year, leading to Republican victories.

Some might argue that affection for Obama has not changed. However, recall that Obama exhorted his supporters to help him fulfill his agenda. That would include supporting fellow Democrats... which the faithful have now declined to do in sufficient numbers.

Remember the legions of young people Obama was going to unleash upon America to fulfill his agenda -- the names of those harvested from the internet, basketball games, and meet-ups? The people who swore allegiance to him and willingly became part of his massive database ready to turn out and tune in for whatever cause Obama trumpeted? They seem to have gone MIA.

Instead, at Obama rallies we have seen scattered union thugs that could have walked off the set of On the Waterfront. No bright-eyed and bushy-tailed among them -- grizzled and scowling, perhaps.

What happened to the youth magic in the Oval Office?

Michael Barone noted the Obama agenda, when put in practice as opposed to dreamed up on the campaign trail, has aspects that do not resonate with the young. Human rights has been thrown under the bus -- and we know how young people enjoy the self-esteem that comes from supporting human rights. The decision to send more troops into Afghanistan has upset some -- despite the fact that Obama did make the Afghan war his pet during the campaign.

But maybe there is more at work here, like a healthy regard for one's own self-interest and future. Rahm Emanuel might say that you never want a serious crisis go to waste, but to paraphrase Samuel Johnson, a crisis also serves to concentrate one's mind. And usually, a person concentrates on his own immediate future.

Obama's policies -- and those of his Democratic allies -- have not relieved the massive unemployment problem that stares millions of younger Americans in the face. Do they really enjoy living with their parents? Perhaps college students and millions of unemployed twenty-somethings  have gotten wind of the fact that profit-punishing policies are not a recipe to create jobs.

Obama's policies, the superb young journalist James Kirchick noted, have hurt the generation that put him in office. ObamaCare will saddle young people with insurance policies and premiums they do not want, violating the sense of libertarianism that lies below the surface of many of the jeans-clad. If college students rebel against small increases in tuition in California and small taxes on same in Pittsburgh, wait 'til they get the big bills for insurance policies they would never choose to carry. Obama has flipped-flopped on a mandate to require people to buy health insurance. During the campaign, he alleged that there would be no mandate. But now he has changed his tune, as is his wont, in office.

Math skills have eroded in this country, but perhaps not so much as to obscure the fact that these massive deficits will be paid out of the young's future earnings. Gay rights? What happened to those? Barack Obama seems to have ditched the prospect of repealing the Defense of Marriage Act and the Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy followed in the military. He has similarly stood on the sidelines as referenda were held to revoke gay marriage laws in Maine and Washington.

How about the idea of providing free college educations? That idea was floated on the campaign trail. The helium seems to have been let out of that balloon.

All in all, not a very pro-youth agenda.

But I conjecture that there is another reason that the young have turned on Obama as he has on them. They smell a phony -- and there are few things young people disdain more readily than a phony (consult J. D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye).

Broken promises can lead young people to feel they have been had -- as they have been. Broken promises are not a way to win friends with this generation or any other. This generation of young voters has every reason to feel abused. Obama ran his campaign and created a persona that allowed him to be all things to all people -- more so than any other politician in American history. Obama let his strategy slip out in his own words when he wrote, "I serve as a blank screen on which people of vastly different political stripes project their own views."  

The Chauncey Gardiner/Being There act served Obama well in 2008. In 2009, he actually had to serve as president and make decisions that revealed his true agenda -- one that inevitably would perturb and anger many people who bought into the fables.

Now the 2008 mask has slipped. Barack Obama is seen as a mere mortal, and not a particularly nice one, at that. The cool pose of 2008 has turned into the hectoring one of 2009. The man who proclaimed his goal to bring us together has become the man who taunts opponents ("I won") with the prospects of facing pitchforks if they do not do his bidding.  The imperturbable demeanor in the face of a flailing stock market was not a reflection of attitude so much as one of  apathy.

The "nice guy" has become a man addicted to insulting wide swatches of Americans (doctors, police, finance executives, media outlets, Special Olympics contestants) -- and America itself when he goes on his overseas jaunts. The man whom they trusted to "fix" things now whines about the duties of his office. Americans may tolerate a sore loser, but they have less tolerance for a sore winner -- especially if they went all-out to get him elected.

But maybe there is even more behind the disaffection of the young. Perhaps they can no longer be inspired by a celebrity on whom the media has overdosed us: Ubiquity breeds disdain after a while (the houseguest who overstays his welcome). Americans can flip off the American Idol television show, but not an American Idol whose image is everywhere -- television, posters, banner ads, and magazine covers (no wonder Anita Dunn, the former White House communications director, admired Chairman Mao).

Maybe the young have grown bored with speeches that are stale and predictable, sometimes even whiny.

Are young Americans seeing what Obama's long-time Pastor Jeremiah Wright, Jr. saw him to be: just a politician?

Is being a phony the kiss of death for Obama in the eyes of young people? Has the revelation of his dependency on the teleprompter stripped him of the aura of being the great, brilliant orator and just made him the Milli Vanilli of politicians?

Is there any "there" there?

Have the young just had enough? Are they just ready to move on?

Young people yearn for the next new thing.

And what does all of this portend for 2010?

Ed Lasky is news editor of American Thinker.