By Aaron King
When the clock struck 11:00 p.m. on Nov. 4, a burst of vigorous elation seemed to emit from America’s youth. College campuses roared late into the night in a show of unified jubilee that has seldom been witnessed in the past few decades. In Ithaca, N.Y., this joy was manifest in a symphony of pots and pans and happy fools running naked through the streets. There was a feeling that we had just done something monumental.
President-elect Barack Obama was swept into the White House by the largest margin of victory in 20 years, and he did so with a message of change. It was a message that appealed to our most visceral intuitions, one that resonated to the core, especially for a generation of young people who have largely come to their political consciousness under the reign of George W. Bush.
“[Young people] have experienced only a very conservative, sort of a Cold War revival,” said Elizabeth Sanders, a professor of government at Cornell University. “That’s why there’s the comparison to Kennedy, because of the feeling that this could be something truly different.”
The notion that the people of this country could be inspired by their leader was not a reality this generation had very well known. The prospect of an Obama presidency instilled a disillusioned many with this unfamiliar warmth.
For many young people, this in itself was evidence of change, and we believed in it enough to come out in large numbers for Obama. According to the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning & Engagement, youth voter turnout rose to nearly 53 percent, an increase of five percent from 2004 and 11 percent from 2000. In total, 68 percent of voters 29 and under preferred Obama, even though only 45 percent were self-identified Democrats. Indeed, the youth vote arrived. The enthusiasm was not a mirage or some trivial exhibition. We got what we wanted.
President-elect Obama will surely change some things, but whether he will create the progress so many people, young people in particular, desire is up to debate. To this point, most have been satisfied that he’s not George Bush. But as he makes more decisions, people will take greater notice. There are indications of what the world will look like once Obama takes office. The young people who hit the voting booths for him are looking to the future with an uncertainty rooted in the turbulence of these times.
Stephen Wayne, director of the American Government master’s program at Georgetown University, warns not to expect too much change.
“Obama is a pragmatist, and he realizes that only 22 percent of the country, according to the exit polls, is liberal. So you can’t achieve liberal change because there isn’t that environment,” he said. “That’s why he’s got to govern from the middle.”
Obama’s Cabinet appointments lend insight into the way he’ll make decisions once in office. He has been praised for assembling a diverse array of individuals, friend and foe alike, from all over the political spectrum. Some, like Sanders, don’t see it that way, and have been led some to surprising conclusions.
“I think there’s an over-eagerness to please conservatives,” she said. “The financial crisis made it possible to be a Roosevelt and not a Clinton and to bring in a very different policy that relied on the Democratic principles. But, he still hasn’t realized that.”
Nor does Sanders see Obama governing from the middle.
“If you look at the breakdown of Congressional voting, there’s really been no center. It’s been polarization [between Democrats and Republicans]. I think there’s no center to move to. I think he’s moving to the right.”
Progressives and anti-war voters have been critical of Obama for the hawkish make-up of his foreign policy team, most notably Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and National Security Adviser Gen. Jim Jones — all individuals who supported the Iraq War. His reticence in discussing his proposal to withdraw combat troops in Iraq within 16 months and commitment to elevating the number of troops in Afghanistan has given some on the left pause as well. While Sanders, an expert on presidents and foreign policy reform, believes there are reasons to be disillusioned by some of Obama’s choices, she said that the overall result of the Obama election will be a new outlook on foreign relations.
“Democrats have had more of a desire to avoid war, to use diplomacy, to work cooperatively with other nations to consider social ills and foreign aid. I expect Obama to reach back into that tradition. Overall, I think you’re just going to get a smarter, more nuanced foreign policy.”
While Sanders is worried about the lack of a prominent progressive voice in Obama’s administration, and especially the presence of “Hillary Clinton and some of the more militaristic individuals,” she does see some of that patented Obama change on the horizon.
“I would hope that Obama has at some point seen the rejoicing that took place, people dancing in the streets when he was elected. I hope he realizes that he really is a candidate for the world and that people have real hopes riding on a restoration of the better traditions of this country — more multinationalism, more genuine cooperation, less subordination of every other interest to finance and deregulation. I just don’t see how that cannot happen.”
If Sanders is right that the rest of the world is a little bit happier with the new United States, then the ramifications are huge for young people. Having come of age during years in which the U.S. and its policies were generally disdained in much of the world, a goodwill president could mean a brand of 21st century nationalism in which the U.S. again serves as something of a leader in world affairs.
“People had seen us as the root of so many awful problems, and Obama sort of gives a little bit back of our reputation that we’d like to have,” Sanders said.
Most convenient of all for young people, the days of having to defend your country while studying abroad or on vacation may be coming to an end.
Meanwhile, the projected picture of affairs on the homefront is not quite as rosy. The economy is in its death throes, now heaving up the “big three” automakers onto the Congressional chopping block. While the top executives of General Motors, Ford and Chrysler beg for forgiveness and a $25 billion loan, bailout weary representatives are willing to let them slide acrimoniously into bankruptcy. Even if given the check they ask for, the “big three” are going to have to make big layoffs. Wayne sees the writing on the wall, and the outlook is grim for young people fresh to the workforce.
“If [Obama] is able to prevent the A-list auto manufacturers from going out of business and thereby save what would amount to a million jobs, there’ll be a million more jobs available for young people,” he said. “Because, the fact is, when you graduate with one or two million more people who’ve been put out of work, that’s going to be tough, and you’re not going to be in much of a bargaining position.”
The message may be stale by now, but it is nevertheless true. Ugly, disquieting, vile, but true — it’s the economy, stupid.
“The economy comes first, and that in the long run will have the most effect on the most people. For young people, jobs at the moment are more important than the education reforms,” Wayne said.
Obama himself has stated, on MTV no less, that young people are among the hardest hit by the economy. “They’re the ones who are going to have the toughest time finding a job,” he said in an interview in September. If Obama cannot get the economy back on its feet, then credit markets will remain a heartbeat from collapse, banks won’t be able to lend, businesses won’t be able to invest in higher production and additions to payroll, and home and college loans will be more difficult to access. No jobs. No homes. No school. We’ll wish for a return to the days when piling up debt was easy.
And that’s just the beginning.
“You have to remember that a lot of the poor people in this country are young people,” Wayne said. “And they are more dependant on government aid and entitlement programs than are the older people, who receive Social Security and Medicare. But they vote, so those things are not going to be changing very much.”
Fortunately, as is always the case with a free market economy, things can only stay so bad for so long. With some well-informed direction, the slumping economy could get back on solid ground a little sooner. But some on the left are anxious that Obama is depending too much on recycled names and Wall Street insiders, namely Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner who has received a lot of the blame for letting Lehman Brothers fail, to clean up the mess. Wayne recognizes this danger, particularly in light of the message Obama used to rise to power.
“He has appointed experienced people who have good reputations. Now, you might want to argue, that for a guy who ran on change, appointing people with experience is not going to produce change as much as it’s going to produce incrementalism. Incrementalism is what Obama is about — compromise, governing from the middle, and explaining it as though it were change.”
But before the disenfranchised masses line up to shout and call Obama a liar, Wayne urges people to consider something: we don’t know what the hell to do.
“The magnitude of this crisis is such that we really don’t know the best way to proceed. Clearly, we’re in this big hole financially; the deficit for next year will exceed a trillion dollars,” he said. “So he’s got to proceed slowly and carefully and on the basis of a consensus which he will then try to utilize to produce more policy down the road.”
Just as the slump elsewhere in domestic life developed from the economy, so too does recovery. Once the economy recovers, the credit market will free up, jobs will return, and we can start living in our own homes again. Early indications are that Obama has been able to “calm the nation’s jittery nerves” to an extent with his statements and proposed directed tax cuts for small business owners. After that, he can really go to work on his promises.
“What he’s going to do,” said Wayne, he continued, “is use the economic umbrella and this crisis that has been generated, to get through some of his other legislation, including healthcare, perhaps something with respect to student loans.
“Once the government can begin to lend money directly thru Pell grants to college students, and eliminate the middle people and eliminate the banks, that will help people.”
The most palpable change Obama represents, though, has been through no active effort of his own. It simply regards his background. Beyond being the first African-American president of the United States, Obama will be the first ethnic minority to lead any Western country. Andrew Grant-Thomas is the deputy director of the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at Ohio State University, and he sees this transcendent moment as being one of particular generational significance.
“Clearly, people who are 12 and 13, now that Obama is about to be president, would be astonished, perhaps, by people like me who think it’s astonishing that we’ve seen a black president. So the sense of what’s possible and of the role that race plays at that level is very, very different for those young people.”
A phrase that has been popularized in the past few months in referring to Obama is “post-racial.” While few have called this election the end of racism, there is a sense that new opportunities have been accrued by minorities. After all, if a black man of humble origin could become president, isn’t it safe to assume that the same avenues will open for others? Not so fast, Grant-Thomas warns.
“Have we entered a post-racial society? The answer is clearly no,” he said. “Something significant happened in racial terms, and we should recognize that. But what I think happened in the election was that, for the first time, lots of people who had reservations about race were nonetheless willing to override those reservations due to a very particular and contingent set of circumstances.”
Grant-Thomas relayed a story he heard that he felt perfectly captured this dynamic.
“Someone who had done some phone canvassing for Obama talked about calling someone in Alabama. She was talking to a woman who answered the phone, and then suddenly, the woman’s husband came on the phone obviously impatient and said, ‘Ma’am, we’re voting for the nigger.'”
While this story clearly represents an exaggeration of the feelings most Americans harbor, Grant-Thomas points out that most people still carry hidden biases, “even if we’re consciously whole-heartedly egalitarian in our attitude.” Obama’s election could cloud the perspectives of young people, who have no active memory of the civil rights’ movement, and hide the truth that race is still an issue. If an African-American who was legitimately accused of being underqualified was elected president, how can structural and institutional racism still exist? Beyond telling us that we were willing to elect a black man president under these circumstances, not much, according to Grant-Thomas.
“I don’t think it tells us much else because I know that attitudes about black people on the whole haven’t shifted. I know that there are a billion studies that document racial bias in the housing market, in hiring practices, and in education. And I know all of that goes a long way to explaining long-standing racial inequalities.”
There is clearly a lot of work left to do, and there is a real risk that the young people who were once disenchanted by Bush will become defeated if disappointed by Obama. But there also hasn’t been a mobilization of the youth like Obama constructed since the 1960s, which provides a singular opportunity to affect change, in the case that we don’t get it from the top.
“I would say to students that the way to influence Barack Obama is not to give him five dollars,” Sanders said, “but it is in forming movements. There has to be a mobilized force on the left to pull him toward diplomacy, humane values, more concern for the poor, and other progressive ideals. Without people like that in his administration, who’s it going to come from? It’s going to have to come from social movements and from the world at large.”
Aaron King is a senior journalism major. E-mail him at aking1@thaca.