According to a new CNN poll, President Obama’s support among young people has fallen a whopping 17% in the past month
. And while a single poll taken as college students are in finals or preparing to graduate has limitations, it’s hard to dispute that a constituency that twice voted for Obama in record numbers is disillusioned and demoralized over the President’s performance. GOP obstructionism is certainly a factor; Obama's base would be happier if Congress had enacted his campaign agenda.
But there’s a deeper problem. People have lost faith in Obama’s willingness to take a gloves off approach to political adversaries. That's why even when Obama directly addresses young people--- as in the president’s recent speeches about reducing student loan debt---he is not seen as going to the mat for the cause. Obama could regain young people’s support by lowering student loan rates, enacting immigration reform and rejecting the Keystone XL Pipeline, but time---and his political capital—is running out.
President Obama’s declining support among young people goes beyond the recent eavesdropping and NSA revelations. Obama is unwilling to play the role of populist insurgent that the times demand, and still yearns for “bipartisanship” despite the most partisan political climate in the nation’s history.
Obama’s Missed Opportunity on Student Debt
I have been struck in conversations with young people how little they expect from the President. I was speaking to a UC Berkeley law student last week who is taking on nearly $60,000 in debt each year. He was not clear what Obama was doing on student loan rates, as he was too preoccupied figuring out how to survive on a public interest job when he graduates nearly $200,000 in debt.
If you follow the President on Twitter (@BarackObama), you know that he has been regularly tweeting about reducing student loan interest rates. But my young friend and millions like him are too busy to monitor Obama’s tweets; all they know is that they will soon graduate deeply in debt.
Obama could have led campus marches across the nation to support his student loan plan, rather than relying on tweets and little known campus speeches. Such marches would have galvanized students behind the President, and they all would have seen how Obama was fighting by their side.
But that’s not Obama’s style. Instead, his speeches on debt run on television news shows that young people don’t watch. These speeches do not show Obama as a fighter, and do not build a movement behind his student loan proposal.
To those who say it would be unseemly for Obama to help lead a student march, he’s the guy who always talked about getting “Fired up and Ready to Go!” Obama’s fire seems to get extinguished in between presidential campaigns, yet that’s what financially desperate young people expect to see from a President who vowed to bring “Change.”
Immigration and Keystone
I wrote on May 28 that Obama “can still bring real change
.” And his declining support among young people does not change this. Dreamers are as committed as ever to enacting immigration reform, and young people across the nation are mobilizing against the Keystone Pipeline.
But for millions of young people struggling with debt and the lack of living wage jobs, Obama has not delivered on his promises. They expected more, and are not interested in excuses.
And while enacting immigration reform would be the signature achievement of Obama’s second term, his support for Keystone would be the ultimate betrayal of young voters.
Obama has proved temperamentally unsuited for the partisan battles required by the times. His recent approval decline comes mostly from young people, but, other than Latinos and African-Americans, nearly all of the constituencies that backed him are disappointed in the President.
Randy Shaw is the author of The Activist’s Handbook
and Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century