This week, the president logged considerable time trying to determine whether the kids are alright
-- or in fact, whether the kids don't stand a chance
. Speaking at two youth-focused town halls in an effort to gin up his base of 18- to 29-year-old voters, Obama took his message to millennials
at George Washington University (on Tuesday) and BET studios in Washington (on Thursday) for an MTV-sponsored forum
With little more than two weeks to go before the midterm elections, the president was making his appeal to a base that remains strong in its support: though approval for the president among this age group has slipped from an initial 66 percent approval rating
immediately after the election, 18- to 29-year-olds still gave Obama a 57 percent approval rating
as recently as last month.
What's more, according to Pew research, these millennial voters are more strongly allied
with core, liberal Democratic principles than any group since the post-WW II "Greatest Generation." A poll
conducted by left-leaning NDN think tank showed millennials care most about the economy, education, health care, and financial reform -- areas the president has tackled with brio in his first 22 months in office.
The events this week were both small, in-the-round style meetings with Obama in center stage fielding questions from a variety of media, aimed at engaging the youth of America where they (purportedly) live these days: Twitter, Skype and the Internet. There were even a few, old-fashioned questions asked in person.
At George Washington, the Democratic National Committee-sponsored town hall featured an audience of 125 mostly college-aged students and was characterized largely by softball questions. The president was asked about the effect of corporate money on elections -- he weighed in on special interest money
, alluding to the recent White House campaign against conservative groups including Chamber of Commerce and America Crossroads.
He was asked about how to get voters to the polls in November ("This election is a choice . . . the other side stands for the same failed policies that got us into this mess in the first place," etc).
One question was such a giveaway -- "Can we inform people that the campaign slogan was 'Yes, We Can,' not 'Yes, We Can in 21 Months'?" -- that Obama had to acknowledge it as such. "Well, that's sort of a softball," he said. "But I appreciate it."
Thursday's event in front of an audience of 225 college and university-aged students, broadcast on MTV, CTV and BET -- as well as their online properties -- was significantly more contentious
. The president fielded questions about the lack of bipartisanship in Washington, the economy ("If the economy does not improve over the next two years, why should we vote you back in?"), the seemingly complicated White House actions
around "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," the nation's dwindling Social Security funds, illegal immigration, and race relations -- including Muslim-American tensions.
On both evenings, the questions elicited thoughtful, professorial responses from the president. He stayed on message, outlining his administration's accomplishments in education reform, health care reform and financial reform. He urged voters to take to heart the notion that this was an important election -- he didn't go so far as to use the well-worn "Republicans have driven the car into the ditch
, Democrats have pulled it out" metaphor -- but the tenor of his responses was much the same as it has been in the backyard town halls
(target demographic: baby boomers) that he's been having for the last few months.
In fact, with the exception of the unlined faces, the Tweets and Skyped-in calls, these "forums for the kids" weren't all that different than the ones geared toward their parents. Looking back at the enthusiasm and pageantry
that characterized Obama's campaign in 2008, what became most clear this week was the sharp difference between ralllying supporters as a candidate and as an elected official. For college students looking to feel the tingle of "Yes We Can" running up their spines, the town halls left them with little more than "Yes We We Will Continue To Work On It But Please Be Patient Because This Stuff Is Pretty Tricky."
And anyway, at the end of the day, it's not so clear just how pivotal the youth vote will be in determining who wins Congress this November: while various polls have shown the percentage of millennials likely to vote ranging from 78 percent
to 45 percent
, the reality is that their highest turnout on record for a midterm election was a much lower 31 percent in 1982
. In 2006, only 25.5 percent of them voted -- which was an improvement
on the previous two midterm elections.
More telling is this number: Pew found
that only 31 percent of young voters are giving "a lot of thought" to this year's election. For a group inclined to hit the snooze button on midterm elections, those politicians hoping they'll wake up for this one might need to rethink the alarm bell.