By Peter Wallsten
Tuesday, March 15, 2011; 2:00 AM
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.
But the student body president, Christian Ragland, wanted to talk about something closer to home: the deep higher-education cuts being proposed by Pennsylvania's new Republican governor.
"For me, when he talked about apathy, the first thing I thought of was tuition hikes and getting students to be involved in that process," Ragland said later.
Modi didn't have much to offer. He replied that the federal government couldn't do anything about state action, but he promised to stay in touch with the students and bring their concerns to the president.Nurturing roundtables
Videos of Obama's exchanges with student leaders were posted last week on the White House Web site. In a blog post by Modi and through conference calls with young leaders, officials announced a plan to hold more roundtable discussions across the country - though they did not promise that Obama would attend them all.
An online "tool kit" lets an aspiring host organize a roundtable on any topic and fill out a form to let the White House know about it. Obama aides will then consider dispatching administration officials - perhaps even a senior adviser or Cabinet secretary - to join the conversation.
Modi wrote that the White House "Youth Team" will read every filled-out form, "and we'll be in touch with all of your participants in the coming weeks with White House conference calls, Web chats, and other opportunities to talk with folks all across the Obama administration on a number of important issues."
The Cleveland video shows Obama seated at a square table with a diverse group of a dozen or so students who watch him intently and take notes as he discusses his plans for additional get-togethers.
"Spread the word," he told the group, "because we're going to be going to different college campuses we want to organize."
The video concluded with a participant telling the president that his Jan. 20, 2009, inauguration was "the best birthday gift I ever got" and adding: "I actually had a cake for me and you that day."
White House officials said the outreach initiative is unrelated to partisan politics and designed solely to connect young people and their ideas with the administration. Invitees to roundtables, including one in Boston last week, have included Republican activists as well as Democratic ones.
"This is really more about getting young people involved in tackling the challenges that face the country, including jobs, access to education and dependence on foreign oil," said Shin Inouye, a White House spokesman. The roundtables "are designed so that folks, regardless of their background, can participate."Young and jaded
Last year's elections and polling trends since 2008 suggest young people have lost some of their enthusiasm for Obama and the Democrats and, more generally, their idealism about politics.
Washington Post-ABC News polling shows that Americans under 30 remain Obama's strongest age bracket. But his approval rating in that group has dropped considerably since the early days of his presidency.
Sixty-three percent of people 18 to 29 approved of his job performance in January, compared with 84 percent in February 2009. The share of voters under 30 who identify as Democrats, which spiked to about 4 in 10 in 2008, dipped back in 2010 to a more typical level of about one-third, according to aggregated Post-ABC data from both years.
More generally, a fall 2010 survey by Rock the Vote found that nearly six in 10 people under the age of 30 said they were more cynical about the political process than they had been in 2008.
In the November elections, Democrats lost races in important swing states such as Ohio, Wisconsin, Virginia and Pennsylvania despite eleventh-hour campus rallies in which Obama implored college students to vote.
Several young people on the receiving end of White House outreach in recent days said in interviews that they appreciated the contact but wondered whether the program would be effective.
Some seemed perplexed by the lack of specificity in the roundtable discussions and other conversations. White House aides, perhaps sensitive to the need to avoid overt politicking in their official duties, appeared reluctant to delve into heated issues. For instance, they sidestepped a question from a youth conference call participant last week about how to get young people more involved in helping public-sector unions fight GOP governors.
Another participant in that call, Johns Hopkins Universitysenior Woodrow Campbell, said the White House might be better off seeking out students who aren't already involved in politics but who might become interested once they see how government affects the activities they care about, such as sports and the arts.
"Government policy affects almost every student group," said Campbell, a student adviser to the university's Center for Social Concern, which coordinates community service groups. "If their members learn why the administration's decisions matter to them and how they can influence those decisions, they would be more engaged in politics and more likely to vote."
In Boston last week, representatives of Democratic and Republican clubs from various schools sat down with some of Obama's top aides, including senior adviser David Plouffe.
Plouffe asked the students to describe how they viewed Washington. Michael McLean, a junior and president of the Harvard Republican Club, said he told Plouffe that he viewed the federal debt as a major issue for youth.
The meeting took place out of public view at a high-tech academy in the city, where Obama was delivering remarks on his push to make America more competitive. As he had done in Cleveland and State College, Pa., the president popped in and spent about 15 minutes chatting with the college students. He talked about the balkanized nature of the media and the need for compromise.
"It was a very cool, a very awe-inspiring experience," said McLean. "But there wasn't a lot of substance."
Ragland, the Penn State student body president, said the outreach program was promising. He noted that he has remained in e-mail contact with Modi and hopes to attract White House interest in a student rally being planned in Harrisburg, the state capital, to protest budget cuts.
"This could be a great tool to get people engaged in the next election," Ragland said. "People aren't hard to please, if you show up and show that you're interested in what they're doing."
Polling manager Peyton M. Craighill contributed to this report.