White House seeks to reconnect with young voters

By Peter Wallsten
Monday, March 14, 2011

Early last month, President Obama addressed 1,000 people at Penn State about his ideas for reviving the country's economy. A couple of weeks later, he delivered a similar address to about 100 small-business owners at Cleveland State University.

But it was what Obama did offstage and away from the news cameras at the schools, before groups of about a dozen at a time, that was perhaps more important to his campaign for reelection.

At the universities - both of which are in politically important states - the president popped unexpectedly into nondescript campus conference rooms, surprising small groups of students who had responded to invitations to meet with mid-level White House aides.

"We are so interested in figuring out how to get your ideas, your input, your energy," Obama told a group of student leaders from Cleveland State and nearby schools. He shook each participant's hand and posed for a group photo.

Twenty months before Election Day, and even before the president officially opens his campaign office, Obama and his White House team are launching a number of efforts to reconnect with the young voters who were among his most fervent supporters in 2008 - but who have soured somewhat on the president since.

The White House announced a plan last week to hold at least 100 roundtables this spring at which administration officials will meet with young people. The administration also will solicit ideas from young people through a series of national conference calls, Web chats and other forums. In addition, the White House enlisted Kalpen Modi, the 33-year-old actor known as Kal Penn who played the character Kumar in the popular Harold and Kumar stoner movies, as its top youth liaison.

The early and aggressive outreach is an indication of how much has changed among young voters in a little more than two years - and how far Obama has to go to rekindle the energy of one of his most politically important constituencies.

When Obama ran in 2008, teens and 20-somethings were quickly smitten by this different-sounding, different-looking kind of candidate. Obama spoke their language, joined them on Facebook and tapped into their idealism, galvanizing young voters by telling them that "we are the ones we've been waiting for."

Voters under 30 responded in a big way, accounting for an unusually large share of the electorate in many targeted states, where they voted overwhelmingly for him.

But the economy has battered young Americans along with many others, and the ideals of 2008 have succumbed to the realities of what's come after.

College tuition costs are escalating, states are cutting education programs, and graduates are being thrust into one of the worst job markets in decades. Unemployment among those age 20 to 24 has risen, going from about 11 percent in the final days of the 2008 campaign to 15.4 percent now, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The new dynamics have complicated White House efforts to connect. Before Obama joined the Penn State roundtable, for instance, Modi sought to inspire the students to combat apathy and encourage activism on grand causes such as saving the environment and helping the people of Darfur.

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