NEW YORK - Young voters were an important factor in Barack Obama's victory last Nov. 4, but will their new political enthusiasm stand the test of time?
According to national exit polls and the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE), 66 percent of an estimated 23 million voters between the ages of 18 and 29 backed Obama in the presidential election. About half of that number, 32 percent, chose John McCain.
With Obama's inauguration less than a week away, and the country mired deep in an economic crisis and two overseas wars, youth advocates say that the challenge now will be to maintain that engagement and forge new alliances between young people and other civil society movements.
"They have to figure out a way to keep young people involved on a legislative basis," Jane Fleming Kleeb, executive director of Young Voter PAC, told IPS. "The key task is to figure out how to get young people to be basically political players in the Washington DC atmosphere. And that is going be a very heavy lift."
Energized by Obama's personal charm and progressive rhetoric, and boosted by popular Internet social networking websites like MySpace and Facebook, youth voter turnout rose to more than 50 percent, an increase of about five percentage points over the 2004 election exit polls, according to CIRCLE.
So what can be done to maintain the enthusiasm of young voters once the honeymoon is over? Kleeb said that since most youth groups don't have much of a presence in Washington, they have to team up with established grassroots lobbies, like labor unions, to make sure that youth don't get left out of the equation when policies are formulated.
Peter Levine, director of CIRCLE, sees great potential. "Young people who supported Obama should be able to continue to press for political change, which really means now legislative change," he told IPS. "They should be enlisted in things like the battle for climate change legislation and have ways to advocate on a grassroots level for legislation."
So how big is the danger that young people will become disenchanted once they see that the new administration cannot solve the country's myriad problems within a couple of months or even years?
Kleeb is optimistic. "I think that young people are very aware that this is going to be a heavy lift. They don't expect that health care is going to be available for Americans overnight. And this the wonderful thing about this generation -- that while they are very idealistic, they also know that change within the government structures is going to be fairly slow."
Levine points out: "There is a real need for resilience because it is likely to be bad times. There is no way that a president can solve that problem. These expectations are too high. There is a risk that they will be."
"It is obviously way too early to say this, but people are making the analogy to 1932. [Franklin D.] Roosevelt won the enduring support of the majority of Americans. He was elected to five terms even though he didn't solve the Great Depression."
Taylor Black, 25, is not a typical young voter. The Brooklyn schoolteacher started off as an Obama supporter. "I voted for him in the primaries," Black told IPS. But in the presidential election, he opted for independent candidate Ralph Nader.
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What made him change his mind and swim against the stream? "I was disappointed. Over the summer I noticed Obama's policies were becoming more and more corporate," Black said. ''Obama's campaign was full of a lot of emotion, which is good. But it wasn't very substantive and also wasn't very progressive. In a lot of ways, just based on his debates, he seemed to do that old Democrat thing."
So what does Black expect from an Obama administration?
"I am not expecting hope -- or change," he said with a laugh. "I am expecting him to mitigate our relationships with other countries. At least this is a good starting place. I credit his leadership abilities. I'd like to see how he handles the [750-billion-dollar Wall Street] bailout exactly and how much he listens to corporations."
"And the corporate donations paying his way throughout his campaign are obviously going to come into play because those people still have their receipts. They are expecting something," he added.
As a college graduate, Black fits the profile of most under-30 voters. Continuing the trend observed in past elections, young people with no college experience were underrepresented at the polls in 2008.
Seventy percent of young voters had gone to college, meaning that college-educated youth were much more likely to vote. And people with less than a high school diploma represented only six percent of young voters, compared to 14 percent in the general population.
To bridge this educational gap, Kleeb is calling for youth groups and others involved in campaigning to stop focusing so exclusively on university campuses as their outreach tactic, since only about 25 percent of young people in the U.S. attend college.
"It is really about going out into the communities, going to places where young people hang out, whether that is coffee shops, bars, or other places outside of schools," she said.
Levine agrees, but sees two other major reasons for the educational gap. "The really good civic education programmes tend to be reserved for stronger students in better schools, so that just exacerbates the problem because the very students that need civic education the most are the least likely to get it. And that is something we should change through policy."
"And the other thing is that the context of working class life in America has changed for the worse in a way that is much deeper than this election issue," he said.
Levine says that many of the "intermediaries" that used to bridge the gap between individuals and government have disintegrated for the working class. "Thirty years ago, you were more likely to be in a union if you didn't go to college, which makes sense because unions are for blue-collar people," he said.
But today, Levine added, union membership has shrunk dramatically. "You are actually more likely to be in a union if you have a college degree," he noted.