For three decades now, the GOP has been shaped by people who served in, came of age in or admired the Reagan presidency. There are not Nixonites or Ike-ites, but there are legions of House and Senate members, governors, mayors, state and local pols and political activists who affix “Reaganite” to their political profile. President Obama isn’t inspiring a generation of Obama-ites the way Ronald Reagan shaped Reaganites and his party for a generation or more. The New York Timessoberly informs its readers: “Unlike John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan, who inspired virtual legislatures of politicians and became generational touchstones, Mr. Obama has so far had little such influence.”
It is worth asking why Obama has failed in this regard. James Freeman posits:
This shift in attitudes among the so-called millennial generation — those born after 1980 — may reflect the fact that the Obama era has been a disaster for them. As noted in a recent report from the Pew Research Center, millennials are “the first in the modern era to have higher levels of student loan debt, poverty and unemployment, and lower levels of wealth and personal income than their two immediate predecessor generations (Gen Xers and Boomers) had at the same stage of their life cycles.”
Young people are not expected to turn out in big numbers for Democrats this fall. The Beltway spin is that apathetic youngsters don’t care enough to show up for midterm elections. But the kids also appear increasingly dissatisfied with the results of Democratic governance.
Certainly, a lousy presidency with a mediocre economy isn’t likely to inspire a generation. But there are other things at work here, too.
One factor is certainly a function of Obama’s ridiculous expectations. Ronald Reagan ran to restore the economy and our military, and he did both. Obama wanted to stop the oceans from rising, reinvent politics, end a decade of war and create a new foundation for America. Many of us never bought it, but a lot of starry-eyed young people did. Obama’s massive ego — and his certainty that simply appearing on the stage would be transformative — left a lot of Americans feeling conned. Just another pol. A lot of empty spin.
Another explanation is attitudinal. Obama ran in 2012 on a message of destroying Mitt Romney. He is now orchestrating a midterm election designed to convince poor people that they are being taken advantage of and women that they are being cheated out of equal pay. And all along he’s been masterful at attacking Republicans, implying their motives are nasty and blaming them for gridlock. It might work in the short run to gain electoral advantage, but that is a cynical brand of politics, one that really does not capture the aspirations of young people and their hopes for a better country.
There is also an international dimension. Reagan identified the “evil empire,” spoke on behalf of dissidents, rebuilt the U.S. military and spoke about the U.S. as a “shining city on the hill.” By contrast, there is not much to admire or to swell one with pride in the Obama era. Let Russia handle Syria. Nation-build at home. Ignore Iranian atrocities. When more than 150,000 die in Syria, Iran steps up its executions and the president embraces whatever authoritarian last grabbed power in Egypt; the idealism simply isn’t there.
The president in many ways is the most cynical we’ve ever had. He disdains his opposition and the entire political process of deal-making. Invective, vilification and partisanship are his constant recourse. That, it seems, is not a model that will call young people to public service. Instead, the revolving door swirls faster than ever before.
The lesson here for Republicans is twofold. First, by appealing to the optimistic, good-hearted and confident strain in America and not fear of foreigners or unbridled paranoia, the GOP can capture young people’s imagination. If they offer a positive reform agenda, they might even get them to vote Republican. And second, the president is the elected chief executive and commander in chief; he’s there to enforce the laws, defend the country and set a direction in domestic affairs. Deifying the president and overpromising are going to lead only to resentment and disappointment. Better to have modest ambitions and superb performance than to promise the sun and the moon and then fall flat.