But their low turnout during the Democratic primary race — particularly for the candidate who was most popular with young voters — brought that optimism back to reality.
Former president Barack Obama, who made record strides in appealing to young voters, hopes to mobilize them to get more involved in the political process. His addresses this past weekend to 2020 graduates gave us our best sense yet of how he’ll reach out.
As Democratic pollster Geoff Garin previously told The Washington Post’s Jacqueline Alemany: “The gold standard for candidates for mobilizing and exciting young voters is Barack Obama in 2008 and there aren’t a lot of Barack Obamas and not a lot of moments like that one.”
In the online event #GraduationTogether, Obama sought to inspire graduates, who aren’t getting the typical dose of fanfare over their achievement because of the coronavirus pandemic, by challenging them to channel their anger and disappointment into the voting process.
This pandemic has shaken up the status quo and laid bare a lot of our country’s deep-seated problems — from massive economic inequality to ongoing racial disparities to a lack of basic health care for people who need it. It’s woken a lot of young people to the fact that the old ways of doing things just don’t work; that it doesn’t matter how much money you make if everyone around you is hungry and sick; and that our society and our democracy only work when we think not just about ourselves, but about each other.
This wasn’t the first time this month that the former president made headlines for attempting to rally Americans to replace President Trump.
The week before his graduation address, a leaked recording revealed Obama describing the Trump administration’s response to the pandemic as an “absolute chaotic disaster.” On Thursday, as Trump was increasing his attacks on the Obama presidency, the former president tweeted one word: “Vote.” It was his most retweeted post in the past month.
Vote.— Barack Obama (@BarackObama) May 14, 2020
Obama and his wife, former first lady Michelle Obama, have expressed their disappointment that turnout in 2016 among some Democratic blocs was below that of the 2008 election that made Obama the country’s first black president. Although young voters were one of the only groups to see an increase in participation in 2016 compared with 2012, their low participation in 2020 so far has caused some anxiety.
After Obama endorsed his former vice president last month, he promised that he would connect with Americans on the trail while campaigning for presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden. The former president’s support came after the primary was essentially over and after most Democratic primary voters had chosen Biden over Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), the candidate who was most popular with voters ages 18 to 29. But Sanders’s popularity with young voters didn’t translate to actual votes. They made up a relatively small percentage of primary voters. And even though Sanders was popular with the youngest voting bloc, voters age 18 to 29, polls repeatedly showed Biden had a solid showing with the bloc and even more so with millennials over age 30.
Obama appeared to want to push back on any suggestion that the Democratic establishment was uninterested in the views of young voters — a frequent claim by some in Sanders’s camp after his defeat. Quite the opposite, Obama argued, when he said: “If the world’s going to get better, it going to be up to you.”
In his speech to graduates of historically black colleges and universities, he said:
If the world’s going to get better, it’s going to be up to you. With everything suddenly feeling like it’s up for grabs, this is your time to seize the initiative. Nobody can tell you anymore that you should be waiting your turn. Nobody can tell you anymore “this is how it’s always been done.” More than ever, this is your moment — your generation’s world to shape.
Biden has largely run on a return to the Obama era — a time that many liberal voters are looking back on a bit romantically now. While Obama is encouraging young voters to chart their own paths, he is urging them to support Biden.
It’s not because he claims he or his former vice president had all of the answers, but because he thinks Trump has so few of them and one of the groups best equipped to redirect the country away from this current moment is young voters.