How the Generation that Elected Obama Lost Faith
Life + Money

How the Generation that Elected Obama Lost Faith

REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

A Quinnipiac University poll released Thursday shows that the multiple scandals dogging President Barack Obama have finally gained traction with the general public.

The poll determined that the president’ fortunes have reversed. His approval rating slipped to 45 percent, down from 48 percent at the beginning of April. At the same time, 49 percent of the public now disapproves of the job Obama is doing, compared with 45 percent disapproval rating at the beginning of April.

But the more alarming number in the Quinnipiac poll was that 76 percent of the public wants a special prosecutor to investigate the IRS’ targeting of conservative groups. This is bad news for the president, who has been trying to put the scandals behind him. And it’s great news for Republicans, who have Attorney General Eric Holder on the ropes and can use the poll to argue that the public has lost faith in the Justice Department.

The last month has been bad for a president who was elected on a message of hope and change and buoyed by the enthusiasm of the millennial generation, typically defined as 18-30 year olds. This group overwhelmingly voted for Obama in 2008. And while their support was less feverish in 2012 – he won 60 percent of the millennial vote last year, compared to 66 percent in 2008 – he still is widely seen as a young person’s candidate.

But Obama’s failure to deliver on many of his election promises is turning off the very generation that was inspired to go into government service. An April survey of more than 3,100 voters under 30 by the Harvard Institute for politics found a deteriorating trust in political institutions. It determined that only 39 percent of young voters believe the president will do the right thing, compared to 44 percent in 2010.

The poll also found that a slight majority of young people--52 percent--approved of the president, but found a steep divide along partisan lines. Eight five percent of Democrats approved of Obama, compared to just 11 percent of Republicans.

Faith in Congress was even lower than the president. The poll found that only 18 percent of people approved of Congress, compared to 25 percent in 2010. Harvard Institute of Politics Polling Director John Della Volpe attributed the lack of faith in government institutions to partisan gridlock.

“On issues ranging from their views of the President to immigration to gun control to the role government should play in improving our economy, both Democrats and Republicans are hardening their positions, while Independent-minded voters are tuning out,” he said. “Nearly half of all Americans under 30 believe that the politics of today are not able to meet the challenges our country is facing."

But another, more direct explanation for millennial apathy was given recently by Shane Smith, co-founder of the media company Vice. He told Charlie Rose that young people raised on a steady diet of advertising and media consumption are too savvy to fall for political tricks. They simply aren't buying what Democrats and Republicans in Washington are selling. 
“Young people today have been marketed to since they were newborns, because cartoons are made to sell cereal,” Smith said. “So as a consequence, they’ve developed the most sophisticated bull**** detector of all time.”

Winning the millennial vote is not just a feather in a politicians’ cap. This huge demographic group can win or lose modern elections. According to the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, they make up 18 percent of the electorate. In Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia, Obama lost the over-45 vote, but was propelled to victory by young voters.

David Burstein, author of Fast Future: How the Millennial Generation is Shaping Our World , said young people have grown weary of the endless scandals that dominate the Washington news cycle. He said the “gate-ization” of every issues, referring to the media’s habit of attaching “gate” to political scandals as a reference to Watergate, makes it “hard to put that [scandal] in perspective.”

“The growing numbers of these kinds of things that have happened over the last decade have eroded trust in government,” he said.

The first political memory of many millennials, Burstein said, is the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Since then, politicians have attempted to use even the most minor scandals as a political weapon.

“We’ve never had the opportunity to view politicians and the political process as scandal free. When these things happen, people of this generation are less outraged. We see it as par for the course, this is the way it goes, these things happen all the time,” he said.

Endless scandals also detract from the economy, the issue more important to young people disproportionally impacted by the Great Recession and its aftermath. He said the outrage being peddled by the Republicans over the IRS, Justice Department and Benghazi does not connect in a meaningful way.

“If there is an issue where Republicans have more hope of winning young voters, it’s the economy and jobs. It’s the more powerful argument,” he said. “It matters to people’s lives more than some terrible thing at the IRS.”

But he adds that young people’s failure to embrace Republicans does not mean they are pleased with Obama. He said much of the passion on display in 2008 has faded away.

 “During the 2008 campaign, there was a real investment in young people and a connection [to the president] that young voters felt,” he said. “Ever since then, that has gone away, that feeling of connection. There aren’t meaningful ways for people to engage with the government.”