The young and the restless

On the occasion of President Obama’s inauguration, a plea from the youth contingent: Let us help.

Luke Best

IN THE 2008 PRESIDENTIAL CAMPAIGN, Barack Obama’s courtship of young Americans led to a newfound political enthusiasm among Millennials, a demographic group born between 1980 and 2000. This November, Obama for America (Part II), attuned to a surge of Hispanic and single-women voters, doubled down on that youth vote, orchestrating the best campus-based grass-roots operation in history. The strategy worked again: The majority of young voters chose to reelect the candidate their generation trusted in 2008.

As a result of the Obama campaign’s enormously potent political machinery — think frenetic door-knocking merged with tech-savvy e-mail and social-media blitzes — the president’s margin of victory among young voters increased in the most hotly contested battleground states, including Florida, Nevada, and Ohio. The turnout of young voters increased across the country, too. In the years ahead, Obama cannot let this powerful asset go to waste.

One misstep of Obama’s first term was his failure to continue tapping into young people’s advocacy and passion in the way his campaign did in the run-up to the election. The same young people who worked tirelessly to register volunteers and enlist canvassers would have gladly toiled as petitioners, picketers, and op-ed writers. If only someone had called on them as a group.


As a special correspondent for PBS this election cycle, I crisscrossed the country to try to piece together a portrait of the youth vote. From the Hoosier heartland to battleground states like Pennsylvania, from campuses in liberal New York to those below the Mason-Dixon Line, I saw young people who were more similar than different.

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University of Nebraska students, for instance, told me that their support of fiscal restraint did not preclude a humane approach to immigration reform. At Long Island University, students feared a Romney administration would cut Pell Grants and other financial aid. But the student body president assured me that his peers did not believe government alone was the solution, just that it should always protect the most vulnerable. Some of the women I met at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley were concerned the Mitt Romney-Paul Ryan ticket would turn back the clock on progress, be it in terms of reproductive rights or fair pay. And while they were relieved by Obama’s ultimate victory, some are now unsure what goals to rally behind.

Most of all, these young people are eager to transcend the gridlock that has defined the politics of recent years — and they believe the best way to do it is getting personally involved in the gritty mechanics of governing.

Obama is going to need the help. During his first term, the president did not pursue any type of gun-safety legislation. Now, after the tragedy in Newtown, the White House is promising “meaningful action.” If Obama is serious about winning this battle — one that may prove the toughest of his two terms — he will need to mobilize the young, activist Americans from his campaign rallies and social network (as well as those who didn’t support him but will consider sensible solutions).

The 2000 recall fiasco, 9/11, the Iraq War, Hurricane Katrina, the Great Recession, Tucson, and now Newtown; these events and more cleared the path, again and again, for a new breed of politics. It hasn’t yet arrived. Meanwhile, continued unemployment and skyrocketing debt among the nation’s Millennials continue to be sources of financial distress.


Putting aside the inspirational rhetoric of 2008, these young people saw their 2012 choice as a defense against slipping into the past. Obama has a second chance to create a better future — but only if he lets his youth brigade get to work.

Alexander Heffner, a freelance writer and civic educator, was a special correspondent for PBS’sNeed to Know. Send comments to


64 million

Number of eligible Millennial voters in 2012 (29 percent of all voters)