As the president addressed the nation Tuesday night, Dita Aisyah, 22, saved a basement table at the District’s Capitol Lounge. Her roommate pushed through the crowd to fetch two free vodka sodas with lime. Their plans: Watch President Obama’s State of the Union speech with a few hundred peers. Mock it relentlessly.
Aisyah works in policy research. The recent Georgia State University graduate identifies as loosely libertarian, right-leaning. She rolled her eyes at the White House’s plan to make community college free, which Obama proposed earlier this month. The price tag: $60 billion, to be paid over 10 years.
“Sounds good on the surface, but who’s going to pay for that?” she said, between bites of pepperoni pizza. “Another thing: When you give away college to everyone, it loses its value. My education loses its value.”
Generation Opportunity rented the Capitol Lounge on Tuesday for a private SOTU viewing party, complete with Bingo cards (“if the president says ‘Let me be clear’”), logo-ed bottle openers and two free drink tickets per guest.
About 300 people, mostly aged 21 to 30, swarmed the classic District bar with a half-true Twitter bio: “No Politics, No Miller Lite.” Nothing unusual in Washington, where dozens of formal and informal parties raged as Obama read 6,400 policy-packed words, much of it about strengthening the middle class.
This second annual gathering, however, attracted a young crowd more likely to have voted for Mitt Romney in the last election. GenOpp, a millennial advocacy organization, is not-so-secretly backed by the Koch Brothers. The group pushes “economic opportunity for young Americans,” according to its mission statement, which, organizers believe, is “threatened by a government that mortgages and stifles our future for short-term political gain.” Interest is captured on social media, president Evan Feinberg said: So far, 2.6 million Facebook likes.
“Young Americans are hurting,” said Feinberg, 30, sipping a Samuel Adams among the revelers. “They’ve got record unemployment, skyrocketing health-care premiums, outrageous college bills they’re paying off… Our generation is motivated by whether or not we have real economic opportunity, Republicans and Democrats.”
Obama’s view, seen overhead on a projection screen, differed: “The shadow of crisis has passed, and the State of the Union is strong.”
American flags dangled from the bar’s wood panel ceiling. Hill staffers swapped business cards and Super Bowl party plans. A pre-speech pump-up blared — Mark Ronson’s ubiquitous “Uptown Funk”: If we show up, we gon’ show out. Smoother than a fresh jar of Skippy.
Political leanings aside, the Capitol Lounge crowd reflected broader millennial attitudes: resistance to attachment and a la carte beliefs. Half of millennials now describe themselves as political independents, according to a massive Pew survey last year. Nearly one-third are not affiliated with any religion. Only 26 percent are married. They tend to organize on social media — which is what brought Aisyah and her roommate to the GenOpp party, squeezing lime juice into their vodka sodas.
Jammie Garcia, 24, marked “One half of Congress gives standing ovation” on a SOTU Bingo card. “Nobody’s clapping for you,” she told Aisyah, laughing, “except Joe Biden.”
The Wyoming native, a graduate student studying public policy at George Washington University, considers herself a “mostly conservative” proponent of gun rights. Garcia wishes she could vote on just issues, not candidates. Her dream gig: government affairs for a national hunting organization.
“I was raised to appreciate traditional values,” she said, “and sometimes I think moving to this city made me more traditional.”
But a research trip to Fiji challenged her environmental and energy beliefs. Garcia’s host family suffered from more frequent and severe flooding, which scientists say is linked to rising temperatures. She couldn’t disagree with Obama’s on-screen assertion: “And no challenge — no challenge — poses a greater threat to future generations than climate change.”
“I’m concerned,” Garcia said, “about how we’re going to help the places already affected.”
Upstairs, Brandon Blum, 25, enjoyed a Samuel Adams. He came with friends who work on the Hill. He considered moving to another bar, a quieter bar, where he could actually hear Obama’s words.
Blum, who works in “external affairs,” graduated three years ago from Saint Peter’s College, a small Catholic University in New Jersey. “I was pretty much the only conservative on campus,” he said.
In a world where more millennials claim middle ground, and middle ground becomes shelter from judgment, Blum plays down his political beliefs.
“Talking about it creates a stigma,” he said. “It puts you in a box. I’m not going to let a party define me.”