Why young voters aren’t feeling Obama-mania this time

Anya Kamenetz, author of “DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education,” is a senior writer for Fast Company magazine.

Four years ago, when I was 28, friends of mine were quitting their first jobs to work for Barack Obama’s presidential campaign. I was getting invites to fundraise or phone-bank for the senator every few days. I spent election night hugging strangers in a bar in Brooklyn and met up with a dozen pals in Washington for Inauguration Day, all of us sleeping on couches and walking miles in the 20-degree weather.

In 2008, voters 18 to 29 went for Obama 2 to 1over John McCain; turnout among these young voters was the second-largestever recorded. But in 2012, that youthful Obama-mania seems to have faded. Alex Wirth of the Harvard Public Opinion Project has forecast that turnout for voters under 30 will be 34 to 40 percent, compared with 51 percent four years ago. Although the youngest voters greatly prefer Obama over Mitt Romney, according to survey data, they are far less enthusiastic, are more likely to call themselves independents than Democrats or Republicans, and rate themselves less interested in the news and less likely to vote compared with four years ago.

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Over the past four years, the president and his young supporters have been buffeted by the Great Recession and by endless stalemates with Republicans in Congress. And of course, an incumbent is inherently less exciting than an underdog candidate promising hope and change. But I think the bigger reason for the dampened enthusiasm is that, in his four years in office, Obama has missed the chance to empower young people — and some of his policies have ended up infantilizing them instead.

Obama now seems less like the cool friend he was to young voters in 2008 and more like the worn-out father whose roof they’re still sleeping under. Among 18-to-24-year-olds, 53 percent have moved back in with Mom and Dad, at least temporarily, in the past few years. Half of college graduates are unemployed or underemployed — and the unemployment rate for those 24 and younger is more than 17 percent. Two-thirds of college grads take home an average of $26,600 in student loan debt, and almost 1 in 10 borrowers default on those loans within two years.

In my reporting on the future of education, I talk to a lot of young people, from 18-year-old vocational high school students to 23-year-old tech entrepreneurs to 29-year-old stay-at-home moms. Across the board, they’re sympathetic to Obama but disappointed in what he’s done.

“I’m still a believer in the things he wants to accomplish, but he’s made it clear he has virtually no intention of doing so and no longer has the opportunity he once did,” Ben Sacks, the 29-year-old co-founder of StableRenters.com, a tenant-advocacy site, told me.

Despite the tough realities they’re facing, this generation, the millennials, consistently polls as being confident, civic-minded, idealistic and determinedly optimistic, as well as collaborative and entrepreneurial. Ultimately, we want to decide our own fate, not to be in line for a handout. That’s why organizations such as Our Time, an advocacy and consumer group for Americans under 30 founded on the AARP model, and Mobilize.org, which invests in millennial-led volunteer projects, focus on young people coming up with and implementing solutions to public policy and economic problems.

Obama has made some strides on behalf of struggling young voters, but they’re hard to cheer for because they don’t help us stand on our own two feet — such as letting us stay on our parents’ health insurance until age 26, one of the first Obamacare policies to be implemented. It’s wonderful that 6.6 million more people can now go to the doctor, but the policy is a stopgap that forces an extended dependence on our families.

Or take the cost of college. Over the past few years, Obama fought with Congress several times to protect need-based Pell grants — a worthy end. But college tuition kept rising, on average, more than 5 percent each year at public universities, and overall student indebtedness has grown at about the same rate.

In 2010, Obama cut middlemen bankers out of the student loan program, saving the federal government an estimated $68 billion in subsidies over 10 years. Most of the money will go to shore up Pell grants, but $20 billion is leaving the student loan program to help reduce the federal deficit.

Similarly, in the showdown in Congress this Juneover a scheduled doubling of the student loan interest rate, Democrats kept the rate at 3.4 percent for another year, saving 7.5 million borrowers about $1,000, but they gave up the traditional six-month grace period between graduation and the start of repayment. All interest subsidies for graduate students also went away. The total savings to students over the next decade: $6 billion. New costs to students: an estimated $20 billion.

The drama over keeping interest rates down obscured the real issue: Providing more student aid doesn’t make education more affordable — it just makes it easier for colleges to raise prices. Vice President Biden admitted this controversial point in Februaryin response to a question at Florida State University: “By the way, government subsidies have impacted upon rising tuition costs.” Translation: more debt for students.

Rather than increasing young people’s dependency on the government, their families and private lenders to pay for college, it would be better to find ways to directly reduce higher-education costs. The Obama administration has made some effort to this end but could do far more. Over four years, starting in 2011, the Labor and Education departments are awarding $2 billion to community colleges to implement open-licensed digital materials and shared courses, among other innovations that could drive down the cost of higher education while updating how it’s delivered.

Low-cost, high-quality education is possible: Western Governors University — a nonprofit online institution based in Utah that has recently been integrated with the public university systems in Texas, Indiana and Washington state— offers bachelor’s and master’s degrees for $6,000 a year, a cost that has remained flat for five years. It’s the leading provider of master’s degrees for the nation’s math teachers. But federal regulations that equate time with learning make it difficult for many efficient and productive models such as this to spread.

When it comes to job creation, the No. 1 issue for voters of all ages, Obama has been talking over young people’s heads. His response to 20-year-old student Jeremy Epstein at the Hofstra University debate was telling: He mentioned rescuing manufacturing jobs. What college grad wants to work in a factory?

Similarly, Obama’s 41-point jobs plan emphasizes positions in infrastructure and state and local government, where the average employee’s age is higher than that of the workforce as a whole — and where salaries, hiring and career paths are tied to unpredictable local and federal budgets. To young people, these jobs represent an old-fashioned illusion of security. Forty percent of young people in some surveys want to start their own business — a far more empowering and flexible form of employment than working for a large corporation or for the government.

Here Romney might have had an opportunity, as a successful business leader, to connect with ambitious young voters and offer a message of economic self-empowerment. As Peter Levine, director of the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University, points out, Romney had an opening among the 50 percent of youth who are neither in college nor college graduates.

But if Obama resembles your tired dad nagging you, Romney is like your friend’s rich dad who’s a little out of touch. His views on immigration and same-sex marriage don’t square with those of this historically diverse and tolerant generation. And comments about the importance of two-parent households with moms who rush home to cook dinner seem stuck in the 1950s.

Romney’s economic advice to young folks? “Start a business,” he told university students in Ohio. How? “Borrow money, if you have to, from your parents.” That’s a cruel joke to kids whose parents may not have been able to afford college at all. In most polls, Romney is way behind among young voters, regardless of their education status.

In the end, young people are still a natural constituency for the president. Obama can reignite our passion by promising a fresh start and tapping into the urge for collective self-determination seen in last year’s Occupy Wall Street movement.

I remember standing in Zuccotti Park in the rainy predawn last October when word came down that New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg would let the Occupy Wall Street encampment stand another day. A roar of elation passed through the crowd of thousands. Some of my close friends and my younger sister, then 24, dropped everything to spend 20-hour days in encampments across the country brainstorming ideas to address income inequality, organizing through social media and feeding each other and the homeless people with whom they shared the parks. (In the past week, many young Occupiers have channeled that energy into organizing for Hurricane Sandy relief.)

What drew so many to the Occupy movement was the experience, if fleeting, of designing and living in a society of real hope and change. This was the energy of Obama’s first campaign — and it brought together many of the same people and organizations — reborn as an effort to reject mainstream political solutions and “be the change you wish to see in the world.”

Believers in the 2008 Obama want to hear words like these backed up with action from that Obama, who was less like our dad and more like our hero. We want a little bit of that rhetorical verve and swagger. We want to believe again — we just need a reason.

outlook@washpost.com

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