Barack Obama inspired a generation of young Americans to shed their apathy and cynicism to vote in record numbers and transform Washington, where government service would become a noble calling. Or at least that was the 2008 spin.
The reality is pathetically different.
A comprehensive analysis of 18- to 29-year-old Americans—the "millennial generation"—paints the Obama presidency as a squandered opportunity to convert enthusiasm for community service into political commitment.
According to Harvard University's Institute of Politics, millennials' lack of trust in American institutions continues to drop, even below historically low numbers recorded a year ago. The institute's latest poll shows declining faith in:
- The presidency (32 percent, down 7 points since 2013);
- The U.S. military (47 percent, down 7);
- Congress (14 percent, down 4);
- The Supreme Court (36 percent, down 4);
- The federal government (20 percent, down 2).
Since 2010, there has been a 6-point jump in the percentage of young Americans who agree that "elected officials seem to be motivated by selfish reasons" (62 percent) and that "political involvement rarely has any tangible results" (29 percent).
Millennials have increasingly soured on politics and government as a way to serve. Just 29 percent agreed that "the idea of working in some form of public service is appealing to me," down 2 points since a year ago. Only 32 percent said running for office is an "honorable thing to do," a 3-point drop.
These are jarring results in light of a broad range of statistics showing young Americans are involved in community service and volunteerism at far higher rates than baby boomers and Generation X. Millennials are eager to serve, just not in government or politics.
"Young people still care about our country," said Harvard IOP pollster John Della Volpe, "but we will likely see more volunteerism than voting in 2014."
It wasn't always this way. After the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist strikes, the IOP noted a surge in institutional support among college students (the poll expanded in later years to include young adults not in college): 59 percent for the president, 69 percent for the military, 54 percent for Congress, and 52 percent for the federal government. The Iraq war rocked their faith in most institutions, and by 2006 only 33 percent of college students expressed support for the presidency. Thirty percent expressed support for Congress and 35 percent for the federal government.
Obama's election briefly renewed young Americans' faith in the presidency and other institutions, Della Volpe said, but those ratings are now as low as they were under President Bush in 2006.
"Obama had a moment, we all had a moment, between the 2007 and the 2010 midterm elections, to engage the largest generation in U.S. history, and we didn't do it," the pollster said. "We treated them like any other political constituency, and not like the service-minded citizens they are, and therefore we disappointed millions of Americans."
Is this Obama's fault? Does the blame lie with House Republicans who obstructed his agenda? Or is the problem systemic, bigger than any one politician or party? The answer is yes, all of the above.
Millennials despise partisanship and gridlock, according to a wide variety of polls, and they have little patience for the inefficiencies of a sprawling bureaucracy built for 20th-century needs. Despite his promises, Obama failed to tame partisanship or modernize government.
"I definitely feel among the kids I talk to and work with a growing mix of disengagement and—it's too strong to call it betrayal—but a deep disappointment with the Obama administration in particular," said Nicco Mele, a Harvard professor who oversaw the groundbreaking digital strategy for 2004 Democratic candidate Howard Dean.
In addition to Obama's expansion of Bush-era surveillance programs, Mele said the administration's about-face on net neutrality "is something I heard a lot of anger about just in the last week."
Mele's boss on the Dean campaign, Democratic consultant Joe Trippi, said the problem is that, for young Americans, the two-party system is clearly stale and irrelevant. "Millennials more than any generation understand that both prevailing ideologies might as well be in caves talking how to start fires," he said. "They're looking for other ways to make a difference."
Rather than go into government, the best and brightest of the millennial generation are using technology to help people and communities, essentially creating micro-institutions that meet social needs and generally make a profit. The movement is called "social entrepreneurship."
Michelle Diggles, an expert in generational politics for the Democratic think tank Third Way, cited polls showing an explosion of self-identified independents among millennials. "They're really upset with the fighting and gridlock and lack of ability to get anything done," she said.
The great unknown, as I wrote here for The Atlantic, is whether young Americans are permanently lost to the political system—with grim consequences for democracy. Or do they at some point decide to impose vast institutional reforms on campaigns and government? For instance, moderating the effects of House redistricting and forcing billionaire donors out of the shadows of campaigns would be a level of disruption akin to what millennials have embraced for the retail, entertainment, and media industries.
They may blame Obama for not leading the way, Trippi said, but millennials know the problem is bigger than one man. "Most millennials I've talked to have come to the realization that sending one guy to change the town or change the government wasn't enough," he said. "It's the system. You have to change everything."
Nobody can fault Obama alone for failing to change Washington. But that's not his only sin: He became a part of the system; he got held hostage by it; and he surrendered to it. Which is why he may be remembered not for losing the millennial generation as much as for blowing a precious opportunity to win it.
Fournier serves on the Harvard Institute of Politics advisory board