Ignore his age. Barack Obama, 48, is the first Millennial president. He embodies the politics and values of the Millennial generation—the 50 million Americans today between the ages of 18 and 29. This makes him a leading indicator of the shape of our politics over the next 40-plus years. But Obama also exposes the weaknesses of this sheltered group as it encounters generational, institutional, and ideological obstacles. The results? Disillusionment, disapproval, and the passing of the liberal moment.
A new report from the Pew Research Center, “Millennials: A Portrait of Generation Next,” shows that the Millennials have been trending Democratic for some time. Why? Dislike of George W. Bush. Iraq made them dovish. By 2004, they had turned against the war. And Millennials are social liberals. They typically do not affiliate with established churches. They are far more open to gay rights and same-sex marriage than earlier generations.
So the Democratic share of the Millennial vote grew from 2004 to 2006 to 2008—when they backed Obama two-to-one over John McCain. Millennials were Obama’s strongest age group. Older adults were split, 50-50. According to Pew, “This was the largest
disparity between younger and older voters recorded in four decades of modern Election Day exit polling.”
No mystery why: The 2008 campaign pitted a young, charismatic, African-American Democrat against a 72-year-old white Republican who doesn’t use a personal computer. It did not matter that McCain was a war hero: Since 1992, four veterans have been nominated for the presidency—George H.W. Bush, Bob Dole, John Kerry,
and McCain. All lost. The American electorate is increasingly estranged from the military culture. Only 2 percent of Millennial males have joined the armed forces. This is the lowest proportion of any extant generation.
Obama was the perfect vehicle for Millennial aspirations. His ethnicity squares with Millennial diversity. His association with the academy—Harvard Law Review, the University of Chicago—is a plus for what likely will become the most educated generation in American history. His politics mirror the Millennial confidence in government and willingness to identify as “liberal.” His campaign embraced social media like Facebook, MySpace, YouTube, and text messaging. If you ask a Millennial what makes the generation unique, technology is the most likely reply.
Above all, Obama said he would transcend partisanship and division and forge a new consensus of “change.” Such words are catnip for an optimistic generation that does not like conflict. Pew found that Millennials, despite coming of age during the Great Recession, are confident about their economic future and more satisfied than their elders with the direction of the country. And while they are the most tattooed and pierced generation in American history—close to 40 percent have at least one tattoo and close to 25 percent have a piercing somewhere other than their earlobe—Millennials are not rebels. Their top three priorities? Being a good parent, having a good marriage, and helping those in need.
Millennials say that older Americans have better values. Hardly anybody believes the generations are in conflict. Parents report having fewer arguments with their children. Growing up today, the 76-year-old Holden Caulfield would feel out of place. Active, social, and happy, Millennials have no time to complain about “phonies.” No time for the old arguments.
And there’s the rub. The 2008 campaign may have been the year when Millennial qualities pushed Obama over the top. But 2009 was the year when the Silent, Boomer, and Gen X cohorts reasserted their dominance. Obama outsourced his top priorities to the Democrats in Congress, leaving them in the hands of partisans who do not care about bipartisan cooperation and political harmony. Who wrote the stimulus, cap and trade, and health care bills? Folks like Nancy Pelosi (69), Harry Reid (70), David Obey (71), Henry Waxman (70), John Kerry (66), and Max Baucus (68). And who is driving public opposition to Obama’s health care reform? American seniors.
Millennials are frustrated, too, by the slow pace with which Obama has enacted his agenda. They are an On Demand generation. They are used to getting what they want instantly or close to it, from iTunes and FedEx packages to fast-food meals and Starbucks. They communicate effortlessly through texts, instant messaging, Skype, Twitter, and Facebook. But the government does not work this way. Our system is filled with checks and balances and minority protections to ensure the maximum possible deliberation and compromise—and to frustrate temporary and passionate majorities from enacting massive overhauls with uncertain consequences.