“Each and every time, a new generation has risen up and done what’s needed to be done. Today we are called once more–and it is time for our generation to answer that call.” So declared Barack Obama in announcing his intention to run for President, and appealing to a new generation to rise up and transform American politics. Over and over, Senator Obama rallied his audience with the persistent call: “Let’s be the generation…”
There’s certainly no shortage of articles hyping the Obama generation or exploring the reality that Obama is receiving tremendous support from younger voters. Time magazine recently ran a feature article on the Obama generation, while Andrew Sullivan of the Atlantic Monthly argues that Obama’s success is explicitly driven by his repudiation of the “older generation” politics of the Baby Boomers. Some young voters have even taken to calling themselves “Generation Obama,” with a website and grassroots youth movement building behind his campaign.
Even seasoned politicians and analysts of the older generation have sometimes turned a bit giddy when contemplating how Obama might represent the coming of a new generation to power—idealistic and impassioned young voters finally replacing the tired old 1960s/Baby Boomer politics of their parents. During a candidate debate, journalist-moderator Chris Matthews called Obama’s Iowa victory a revolutionary moment like Lexington or Concord. Earlier, he eagerly exclaimed that Obama reminded him of the youth and hopefulness of Jack and Bobby Kennedy. A former speechwriter for John Kennedy, Ted Sorensen, also compares Obama to a young John F. Kennedy, and has personally signed on to the Obama campaign, believing Obama will bring a new generation of idealists into politics—just as Kennedy did. Aging 1960s activist and current Representative from California Tom Hayden feels the same and recently posted a laudatory note from his son to Obama on the Huffington Post, and declared that “the Obama generation is here and will not be denied.”
The numbers certainly suggest that Obama is tapping into a generational fault line in American politics. Obama beat Hillary Clinton at least 4-1 among 18-29 year old voters in Iowa, and also bested her among voters under 25 in New Hampshire—while the older the voting group, the more pro-Hillary they voted. And just as Obama’s popularity among young voters is high, so is the number of young voters showing up in the early stages of the nominating process surging. Iowa Voters aged 18-29 grew 135% over their 2004 numbers, confirming the youth surge that occurred in the 2004 presidential and 2006 mid-term elections. While only 18% of eligible young voters turned out for the Iowa caucus in 2004, 43% voted in 2008.
Thecandidates and their teams are well aware of the generational differences between Clinton and Obama voters. “There’s no doubt that we represent the kind of change Senator Clinton can’t deliver on. And part of it’s generational,” Obama told Fox News in early November. “Senator Clinton and others have been fighting some of the same fights since the ’60s. It makes it very difficult for them to bring the country together to get things done.”
Meanwhile two of Clinton’s top campaign advisors have disparaged the youth of Obama supporters. “Our people look like caucus-goers,” Clinton aide Mandy Grunwald said when analyzing Obama supporters at Iowa political events. “and his people look like they are 18. Penn said they look like Facebook.” For his part, Clinton pollster Mark Penn added, “Only a few of their people look like they could vote in any state.”
Here’s one way to look at the emerging generation gap between Clinton and Obama supporters . For sixteen years, America has been governed by Baby Boomer presidents (Clinton and Bush). For longer than that, America has been deeply divided over the bitter divisions that fractured the nation as the Baby Boomer generation came into prominence amid 1960s turmoil. The older generation continues to obsess over these old battles, seeing in a potential Clinton-Giuliani matchup yet one more chance to fight over the legacy of Vietnam, over doves versus hawks, over drugs and the 1960s counter-culture, over feminism and the virtue of stay-at-home moms. The older generation remains obsessed with bitter debates over such things as Hippies versus hardhats, abortion versus choice, and civil rights and racial progress. Every night, the older generation trots out their predictable culture warriors on television news, where Bill O’Reilly and Ann Coulter battle Keith Olbermann and Michael Moore in histrionic and destructive smackdowns that bitterly divide the nation against itself. Every four years, the older generation trots out its Bushes and Clintons, or those like them, to once more fight over War, feminism, and cultural decay, just as they fought over Vietnam and the counter-culture back in the 1960s.
Obama argues in his book, The Audacity of Hope, that this is a tired and calcified political struggle that will never enable politicians to come together into bipartisan, pragmatic efforts to move past the domestic civil wars of the Baby Boomers. “In the back-and-forth between Clinton and Gingrich, and in the elections of 2000 and 2004,” Obama wrote, “ I sometimes felt as if I were watching the psychodrama of the baby boom generation–a tale rooted in old grudges and revenge plots hatched on a handful of college campuses long ago–played out on the national stage.”
Perhaps Obama, born on the tail end of the Baby Boom generation but not really part of it, is the candidate to put an end to all that, and perhaps that is part of his appeal to younger voters. Other notables like Clinton, Giuliani, or McCain can never rise beyond the political divisions of their generation—which partly explains the knee-jerk hatred many Republicans have of Clinton (for example). But Obama is a candidate running as a black man with hardly a mention of the racial struggles of the past . Obama is running against the war in Iraq without the Vietnam baggage that Kerry inevitably carried (as a 1960s Vietnam protestor). Obama is even a candidate who openly admits his past marijuana (and even cocaine) use without bringing up visions of the counter-cultural hippie 60s in voter’s minds—indeed, as seen in the video below, it can be argued that young voters appreciate and respect Obama’s honest discussion of drug use.
“I inhaled frequently. That was the point.”
Is it real? Does Obama truly represent a new generation emerging, one beyond the brutal battles of the 1960s and 1970s, and ready for a new, transformational moment? We know that young voters today have fundamentally different political priorities than older voters—they are more anti-war, less supportive of the Bush tax cuts, more in favor of national health care and increased federal education spending, and more in favor of new environmental protections. Is Obama the man to represent this generation and its values, sending the last of the Baby Boomer presidents packing?
Watch these videos about how Barack Obama is reaching out to the youth vote, and comparing Barack Obama to Bobby Kennedy (an idealistic candidate of the youth in a different era), and ponder whether there might be something real to “Generation Obama.”
Obama Reaches Out to Youth Vote
Obama as Bobby Kennedy