How Obama Lost the Millennial Generation

Despite promise, Obama’s presidency fails to inspire young Americans to serve through politics and government.

  United States President Barack Obama arrives on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, D.C. following a day trip to Colorado Springs, Colorado to view damage from wildfires and to thank the responders battling the blazes on Friday, June 29, 2012. Credit: Ron Sachs / Pool via CNP United States President Barack Obama arrives on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, D.C. following a day trip to Colorado Springs, Colorado to view damage from wildfires and to thank the responders battling the blazes on Friday, June 29, 2012.  
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Ron Fournier
April 29, 2014, 5:42 a.m.

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.

RE­LATED: “Meh: Mil­len­ni­als Skip­ping Midterm Elec­tions”

Fourni­er serves on the Har­vard In­sti­tute of Polit­ics ad­vis­ory board


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