Millennials Abandoning Obama: Fickle Youth or Something Deeper?


by Anita Finlay, March 18, 2014

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In his latest column, Washington Post’s Dana Milbank lamented that the youth vote, 15 million strong, who swept Obama into
office have “abandoned him in his hour of need.”  With ‘his presidency on the line,’ Millennials seem to be turning their collective backs on the President’s health care plan:

“The administration announced last week that only 1.08 million people ages 18 to 34 had signed up for Obamacare by the end of February, or about 25 percent of total enrollees. If the proportion doesn’t improve significantly, the result likely will be fatal for the Affordable Care Act.”

While the President’s recent interview with comedian Zach Galifianakis had the desired effect of getting more young people to HealthCare.Gov, Milbank documents how far the President’s stock has fallen.  The man who was vaunted by rock star-type rallies and throngs screaming “I love you, Barack!” now needs an actor as a go-between to re-inject “cool” into his portfolio.  In a feverish search for reasons for this turn of events, Milbank quotes Tufts University Professor Peter Levin, a specialist in youth civic involvement:

“In 2008, “the level of innovation and engagement in the election, especially the primaries, was amazing, but then the level of engaging them during the administration was extremely disappointing. …[Obama] had a potential army for legislative success and implementation, but the Obama administration did not do that. At a critical moment in the first term, they did not turn to them. . . . They got rapid youth demobilization.”

Milbank is correct that the youth vote became little more than an enormous email list.  The President never truly called upon the foot soldiers that powered his 2008 campaign. But while Milbank, like his frustrated pundit brethren, quotes Pew polls citing Millennials’ ”lack of loyalty to institutions” and “less patriotic core beliefs” for the abandonment of President Obama, a deeper truth is being ignored.

First, President Obama’s tendency to “sell and walk away” has been an oft noted practice.  Loyalty has not been his strong suit.  Throughout his career, he has reached for the next job, sometimes without mastery of the one he already had.  But there is no next job after President, which perhaps accounts for his addiction to campaigning and, ironically, why his most famous campaign poster bore the caption “hope” beneath his image.  Selling hope is where he remains most comfortable.

This brings us to point number two: the fantastical fictions of his campaign promises were hyped by a sycophantic media, but reality has had more than five years to set in.  Millennials experiencing persistent high unemployment, unable to use their expensive college degrees for very much, don’t want to know from hope.  Their pocketbooks are affected.  They, like the rest of us, expect results.  And since 80% of health care costs are concentrated on the needs of those 65 and over, young people don’t quite see the urgency of adding another monthly expense when they are concerned with ratcheting personal debt.

This is well illustrated by Michelle Singletary’s WaPo article, Millennials’ money misfortune.  Ms. Singletary quotes Pew Executive Vice President Paul Taylor, who shares that the bartering between today’s youth and Baby Boomers (“I care for you when you’re young so you’ll care for me when I’m old”) will be unaffordable for many Millennials, who have “landed back in their childhood homes in record numbers because they haven’t been able to get launched in a hostile economy.”

Ms. Singletary notes Pew research findings:

• About half of millennials with student loans say this debt has made it more difficult to make ends meet.

• Unemployment remains high. Pew says 13 percent of the 18-to-24 age group were out of work in the first month of this year.

• The share of young adults living in their parents’ home reached a historical high in 2012, three years after the Great Recession ended.

• Most millennials say they would like to marry. But many, especially those with lower levels of income and education, don’t think they can because they don’t have “a solid economic foundation.”

• When compared with the Gen Xers and boomers, millennials have less wealth and income than the two immediate predecessor generations had at the same stage of their lives.

In the words of Bill Clinton: “It’s the economy, stupid.”  Damage done by the President’s single-minded focus on health care while ignoring the ‘jobs, jobs, jobs’ pivot he had often promised is only exacerbated by the faulty rollout of the plan, elastic deadlines and confused sales methods to engage the public who are desperately needed to make the Affordable Care Act work.

If Millennials find themselves less trusting of “institutions,” it is no wonder.  The man the majority of them had banked on for inspiration and leadership has turned into more of the same:  Predator drones, Gitmo still open, governing via executive order, flouting the Constitution.

Millennials grew up post 9/11 having to “drop trow”, belts and shoes at the airport.  They discovered the stock market, supposedly the bedrock of our economy, was built on sand.  There has been little to no accountability or punishment for the Ponzi schemes that caused its near collapse.  Millennials doubt there will be any Social Security left for them.

As to our current “everyone for themselves” economy, “hostile” doesn’t begin to describe it.  We exist in a fear-based employment model.  Employers have tightened their belts.  Fewer workers are forced to do more and the message is “be happy for what you have or get lost.  There are 20 lined up behind you to take the job.”  The divide between haves and have nots is wider than it has been in decades.

Contrary to Mr. Milbank’s assertions, this is less about a President’s failure to motivate than it is his refusal to focus on a logical order of business aimed at success for the country in the long run.  Rather than ramming the ACA down the collective American gullet, President Obama’s singular focus should have first been on the economy.  There is no doubt he inherited a mess, but to have moved the needle forward even a couple of points would have put us on firmer footing and grown our trust in him.  Instead, we have seen a man take office with tremendous personal popularity that has been eroded by neglect of the promises that put him there.

Millennials’ lack of trust in institutions is oddly similar to those in older generations who feel disaffected for different reasons.  We’ve been playing by workplace and government rules for 30 plus years only to find that the institutions we did believe in, at least marginally, are unreliable.

Perhaps that is a good thing. Millennials can bond with Boomers over our collective distrust and learn to thrive in the situation that has been forced upon us.  A greater civic involvement should not come from the cajoling of our leaders, but rather our own need for self-preservation, entrepreneurship and growth.  As the Reverend Michael Beckwith once said, “be involved, not enthralled.”

This leads to point number three:  Milbank posits that Millennials are fickle, but do not corporations and advertisers profit by that behavior; a preoccupation with social media and movement in packs?  This is cool/now it’s not.  We hang out here/now we don’t.  You must have this product/toss it for the next gen model.  This is viral/now it’s over.  Look at Lady Gaga.  The world could not get enough of her, now she’s so ‘ten seconds ago.’  And isn’t it profitable that this behavior bleed over to all of us?  We are trained to be devouring locusts, consuming everything in our paths and seeking the next thrill.

Candidate Obama offered a thrill to many, apparently, but absent power and substance behind campaign slogans, absent food on the table, hope turns to dust.  “Cool” is like a drug. David Axelrod and the Obama campaign skillfully used the cult of personality to get Obama elected.  But cool is also fickle.  Absent concrete action behind the “words, just words,” we were always bound for a disappointing outcome.  That should not condemn the nature of Millennials but the nature of “selling and walking away.”

The question for the 80 million Millennials going forward: will they choose wisely in future and grow more suspicious of sound without action or provable record?  We all share the same challenge to overcome distractions and a herd mentality that trains us to look for the next “cool” thing in favor of substance.

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Anita Finlay is the author of Dirty Words on Clean Skin.  #1 on Amazon’s Women in Politics books for 16 weeks.

Like Anita Finlay, Author on Facebook.

Follow @AnitaFinlay on Twitter

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