For many of our generation, the meteoric rise of President Barack Obama five years ago changed lives. In his first election, more than two-thirds of voters between the ages of 18 and 29 voted for the president, and 3.4 million more Americans under age 30 voted than in 2004.
But his election meant much more than words could convey.
For millions of young Americans, President Obama presented them their first reason to become involved in the political process. More than just being a candidate, the Obama of 2008 represented an ideal. To young Americans, he was the hope and change his campaign so fervently promised. This idealism was in sharp contrast to the bleak state of politics at the close of President George W. Bush's term, drawing them towards Obama as a candidate who made politics fresh and exciting again.
Five years later, the political process simply doesn’t maintain the same level of excitement for those young Americans who were energized by Obama’s initial run. Today, as Washington climbs from the rubble of its latest self-inflicted implosion over the government shutdown, the excitement of Obama’s 2008 run is nothing but a distant memory, ground away by years of bitter political gridlock.
Even in spite of the fact that some of the luster came off after four years in the meat grinder of Washington, President Obama’s campaign last year still successfully captured some of the spark of 2008.
“As I was doing my volunteering, I actually felt like I was doing something important,” said Weinberg sophomore Parag Dharmavarapu, who canvassed and made phone calls in Wisconsin during the last two weeks of the campaign.
Even then, those four years had permanently changed Obama, forever dragging him down from the feverish excitement of 2008. Instead, he merely became in many ways the lesser of two evils, a means of protecting what policy accomplishments he had achieved instead of a means of moving forward. This sharp change in mood was reflected by the youth voter turnout: Voter participation between 18-24 years fell from 48.5 percent to 41.2 percent, a telling example of the depressed atmosphere.
“When I campaigned for Obama in 2012, I did it more as a means of holding on to what [he accomplished], instead of bringing back the Obama of 2008,” said Dharmavarapu.
Despite recently working as an intern for a candidate for the 13th Congressional District of Illinois, Dharmavarapu still has mixed feelings about politics.
“Currently, we’re so politically divided in this country,” he said. “It’s hard to be excited about politics at this point.”
This change in mood is hardly surprising. Very quickly into his first term, it became clear that Obama could not deliver on those ideals that fueled his campaign. The one-year slog to pass his signature policy, Obamacare, only ended through reconciliation, a messy parliamentary trick that reeked of old-Washington tactics. Things only got more bitter with the ascent of the Tea Party, which hijacked the discourse in the Capitol and pushed our nation’s finances to the brink for the first time in the summer of 2011.
Now, with the prospect of another budget meltdown on the horizon, another directly behind us and without any major progress on pressing issues like immigration reform, it seems more difficult than ever to be excited about politics. Instead, political burnout is the new norm.
The evidence of the youth population’s jaded attitude isn’t simply anecdotal, however. The polling data from Tuesday’s elections spells out this change quite clearly. In 2008, Virginia was one of the key states that fuelled Obama’s nationwide victory, largely propelled by high turnout of voters under 30, who constituted 21 percent of the electorate. However, in Tuesday’s gubernatorial election, this same bloc only made up 13 percent of voters. The drop off in the youth vote, a basic form of civic engagement, is more troubling than fewer young Americans being actively involved through volunteering. It indicates that the mere act of voting is less enticing to youth as a whole than it was before.
That being said, this feeling of apathy is not universal. For some, it’s possible to maintain optimism, despite the onslaught of negativity emanating from Washington. In particular, while polling has dipped even further for Congress, especially Congressional Republicans, support for the President has hovered around 43 percent: hardly a ringing endorsement, but still a solid base.
“It’s difficult to judge a[n ongoing] presidency … but I still think he’s doing a good job,” said RTVF sophomore Daniel Jude, who worked for Obama’s grassroots organization, Organizing For Action, as a summer fellow. While he acknowledged the struggles that Washington has been through recently, he has maintained a level of excitement towards the president in particular.
“It’s exciting to have a president who gives such strong speeches,” said Jude. “[I realized] that people might be listening to these in the future, like we watch speeches by the Kennedy’s today.”
In times like these, maintaining any confidence in the political process is especially challenging. But, as Northwestern graduates like Rahm Emanuel and Rod Blagojevich demonstrate, Northwestern’s newest crop of students often become tomorrow’s political leaders. It’s up to bright, forward-thinking students to ensure that Northwestern remains a source of influence for years to come, raising the level of debate from its miserable state today.