Obama's moment also belongs to young voters

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 13, 2009 

WASHINGTON — For millions of young voters, President-elect Barack Obama s victory was a clarion call to put aside the cynicism and disaffectedness that had defined Generations X and Y and help change the course of the nation.

Their response was a resounding: ‘Yes, we can!’

Throughout the long campaign, a multiethnic coalition of millions of iPhone-wielding, Facebook-friending, tech-savvy, Twittering young voters used all the tools in their arsenal to convince friends, strangers and — yes, even their baby boomer parents — to vote for Obama.

During the next few days, thousands of those young voters will crowd into Washington-bound buses, pile into cars and sleep on the living room floors of friends, family and folks they’ve met through social networking sites — all for an opportunity to witness Obama’s inauguration.

This moment — his moment — belongs to the young, and they plan on taking a firm grip on the torch.

"My generation is the transition between the old ways of thinking and a more progressive period," said James Baker, 21, a junior political science major at the University of California, Davis. "The past election has demonstrated that young people, if they did vote, they could have a huge impact. That's something people never gave my generation credit for before."

According to exit polls, roughly 68 percent of voters age 18 to 30 voted for Obama.

The political landscape, however, was strewn with failed candidates who'd counted on young voters to propel them to victory, said John McNulty, an assistant professor of political science at the State University of New York, Binghamton.

"This tends to be a special conceit on the Democratic side of the aisle," McNulty said. "Howard Dean, Bill Bradley, Jerry Brown, Jesse Jackson, Gary Hart, Ted Kennedy, George McGovern, Eugene McCarthy — all of these candidates, to various degrees, hoped campus activism and the youth vote would vault them to upset victories in the Democratic presidential primaries. Not one of them made it work."

However, Obama's forward-looking perspective, uncontaminated by the baby boom generation's fixation on the cultural struggles of the 1960s, resonated with younger voters.

"Perhaps since Obama is from a generation too young to have been immersed in the cauldron of Vietnam and Watergate, he sees the youth vote with clearer eyes," McNulty said.

For the generation that came of age during the prosperous 1990s, the nation's current economic downturn was a stark wake-up call, said Larry Berman, who's Baker's political science professor at UC-Davis. Many young voters will be entering the job market, or attempting to change employment, at a time when jobs are scarce.

In Obama, young voters see an agent of change, someone who could help them fulfill those hopes and aspirations, Berman said.

"In my entire 33 years of teaching at UC, I've never seen students more motivated or more informed than they were in this election. Compare it to the 2000 election with Al Gore, where there was no real sense of identification, no motivation. This time what you noticed was excitement," Berman said.

"The one danger, and I always tell them this, is that they could also be so disappointed. What happens if super-Obama can’t fulfill things? Will they become disinterested, alienated?"

Students at Alabama A&M, a historically black college in Huntsville, Ala., were engrossed in Obama's candidacy and hope that his presidency will herald a new era of opportunities for their generation. During the election cycle, they discussed Obama's bid with professors — many of whom lived in the South during the civil-rights movement of the turbulent 1950s and '60s — and attended debate-watching parties and wept when he won.

"The environment was so empowered. It gave me chills. People were crying. One of my friends was screaming and crying. For this moment in time nothing else mattered. Everyone was happy for this one common thing," said Brittani Lewis, 21, a biology major at Alabama A&M.

However, as the afterglow of Obama’s election wanes, Lewis, who'll soon enter the job market, watches the dismal economic news with dismay. Though she feels assured of a job in health care, she worries that her classmates' optimism might be dashed.

"Everyone needs to realize what (Obama’s) inheriting," Lewis said. "People's hopes are so high, and he's getting something that is historical. It's not going to be fast. Change is going to happen over time. He's not going to be able to get it done overnight."

As the under-40 crowd relishes its new taste of electoral power, it looks at a nation scarred by economic woes and widespread dissatisfaction with business, media and political leaders, and wonders: "What next?"

"The collapse of Wall Street and the cost of education is very real to these kids, and they think Obama is going to do something about that," said Gary Rose, a professor and the chairman of the department of government and politics at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Conn.

The Obama transition team has worked to keep young voters engaged by capitalizing on the same social networks that helped inspire their mass activism. His team also has met with young leaders to gain their perspectives on the president’s agenda.

"We created unprecedented energy and activism and grassroots energy on behalf of Obama. If you look back at many of the superdelegates who endorsed Obama early on, they often cited their children as the reason," said Matthew Segal, the executive director of the Student Association for Voter Empowerment, a national nonprofit organization founded and run by students. "Now we're ready for a steady engagement with the political process. . . . Young voters will be leaders" in pushing for education, environmental and health-care improvements.

For Whitney Wildman, 20, a junior at Sacred Heart University, Obama's call for greater service profoundly affected how she sees her role in society. During the election, she decided to double major in history and political science and now plans on becoming a public policy attorney.

As she travels to Washington as part of a bus caravan of Sacred Heart students, Wildman said she'll reflect on this moment in history and her tiny part in it.

"To be there at this time is just amazing."

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