WASHINGTON — Barack Obama rallied young Americans to help him win the presidency in 2008, and his re-election strategists want to summon their enthusiasm again.
To figure out what's driving young people this time around, his campaign — and Republican challengers — may well look to his White House, where the Office of Public Engagement just wrapped up a months-long program of youth roundtables arranged by twenty-something college students, recent graduates and non-college-educated Americans across the partisan spectrum.
All told, there were 381 roundtables in 47 states, Washington and Guam from late February to May 31. Young people arranged the participants, dates and locations themselves, after signing up on the White House website. The administration also has been conducting youth outreach through Twitter, Web chats and conference calls. The White House plans to publish an e-book later this year with highlights from the roundtables.
At least one administration official attended nearly one in three of the youth roundtables, according to the White House. In rare cases, that official was the president himself. On several occasions it was Kalpen Modi, the associate director of public engagement at the White House. Modi is better known to the under-30 crowd by his Hollywood name, Kal Penn, or "Kumar" from the marijuana-themed Harold and Kumar films in which he starred.
Now 34, Modi cuts a friendly but strait-laced figure from his perch in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building. An avowed political independent, Modi said in an interview that the youth engagement effort was "definitely, completely nonpartisan. . . . I love the fact that these roundtables aren't political. The main goal is to listen and to facilitate the follow-up."
However, youth engagement is definitely a political consideration for Obama as his re-election campaign ramps up.
The president's job approval rating among voters ages 18-29 was 75 percent when he took office in January 2009 and had fallen to 55 percent as of mid-May, according to the Gallup Poll. He took 66 percent of the vote among 18- to 29-year-olds in 2008, the highest proportion ever. But young voters were less enthusiastic, and turned out less, in last year's midterm elections.
Since Obama announced his re-election bid, he's spoken at several low-dollar fundraisers targeting voters 40 and younger. "That energy, that inspiration that you gave me, the commitments you made to each other about the kind of country you wanted to live in, that spirit we need now more than ever," he told a gathering of young donors at a hotel in Washington last month.
GOP candidates — declared and undeclared — also are competing early for young voters.
Mitt Romney, Tim Pawlenty, Newt Gingrich, Jon Huntsman and others have "Students for" websites and Facebook pages.
Gingrich announced his campaign via Twitter. Pawlenty announced his exploratory campaign on Facebook, appeared on Jon Stewart's "The Daily Show" and has mentioned Lady Gaga and Justin Bieber in speeches.
"Students for Mitt Romney" was active on dozens of college campuses across the country months before Romney made his candidacy official last week. Huntsman hit the commencement address circuit in two states that play key early roles in the 2012 GOP nomination cycle, South Carolina and New Hampshire.
At the White House, Modi's celebrity has helped give the youth engagement effort a "cool" factor.
"For my generation, Kal is a pretty big star and I thought, 'What the heck, I'll just register for this and see if anything happens,' " said Zack Hubbard, 20, of Pennsylvania, a sophomore at Georgetown University in Washington. Hubbard organized a roundtable of 11 students in April to discuss how to expand the reach of his university's community service programs.
Hubbard said he'd campaigned for Obama in 2008 but was too young to vote then. Today he's a registered Republican. He said he hadn't yet decided how he'd vote in 2012.
He learned about the roundtables from the White House's website. He said getting to spend time with Modi in the roundtable was a bonus, but that "the No. 1 thing was having an opportunity to engage in a dialogue with the White House."
The economy, health care, the environment, Sudan's Darfur conflict, community service and the concerns of young Muslim Americans and young Republicans have been among the topics discussed.
The White House website has a roundtable clip featuring Obama meeting with students in Ohio, but overall the administration didn't open the roundtables to news coverage.
Modi said the roundtables were an opportunity for White House officials to talk about how the legislative and political process works, "what the president can and can't do, why he's chosen a certain path."
He recalled roundtable discussions about immigration and the economy: "Folks to the right will say, 'We let these foreigners come in here, we let them access our institutions of higher learning, then we let them leave and they compete against us and they set up these companies overseas.' And then you have folks on the left who say, 'We attract the best and brightest, they participate, they (contribute to) this great diversity on campus and then we just kick 'em out.' And both are true!"
Asked how young people see President Obama versus candidate Obama, Modi said, "It has been, candidly, a challenge to really lay out how change happens."
Hubbard, the Georgetown University organizer, was impressed by the White House's follow-up to his group's roundtable, including connecting participants with resources at Notre Dame and Penn State universities.
"I think it does help them politically," Hubbard said of Obama and his advisers. "The traditional young voter is a Democrat. It's very important they reiterate to the younger generation, 'We want to know what you have to say.' "
However, Hubbard said he'd wait to decide whether to support the president's re-election or whoever emerges as the Republican nominee.
In 2008, Hubbard was attracted by Obama's hope-and-change message, only to be disappointed by what he saw as a politicized health care debate.
"Now we see President Obama in that Washington-as-usual mindset, which kind of takes away the glamour," Hubbard said.
However, he still sees Obama as "very pragmatic," and he approved of the president's tax deal with Republicans late last year and current push for a deficit reduction compromise.
"The campaign in 2012 might be more about long-term policy, detailed stances," Hubbard said. As for the hope-and-change message, he said, "It doesn't seem like it really worked out."
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