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.
But what has most stymied the Millennial ascendancy is the persistence of ideological conflict. These consensus-seekers have found just how tenacious disagreement over values can be. Turns out the proper size and scope of the federal government is a value, too. Americans have now elected three consecutive presidents—Clinton, Bush, and Obama—who have promised to transcend old divisions and govern from the middle. And in each case, those hopes were dashed within months of Inauguration Day. Millennials are blocked. Their time is not yet.
Will it ever come? Of course. But it won’t necessarily be the liberal renaissance some pundits dream of. Over the last year, the proportion of Millennials who lean Democratic has dropped to 54 percent from 62 percent. Obama’s job approval among this group has also dropped, to 57 percent from
73 percent. So they are still on the liberal-Democratic side of things, but less so. And that may be the trend. As generations mature, marry, and multiply, they tend to grow more conservative. One of the reasons the Millennials are so liberal and Democratic is that so many of them are single and childless: Only 12 percent are married with children.
And if the Republicans embrace youth, technology, and diversity while emphasizing a free-enterprise agenda, they may be able to persuade Millennials that the Democrats do not have all the answers. In retrospect, the 2008 election might one day be seen not only as a harbinger of future politics, but as the moment when Millennial support for the Democrats peaked. The moment when great hopes crashed against rock-hard political and social realities. When a generation woke up.
This won’t all be Obama’s fault. After all, he’s a Millennial guy trapped in an old man’s town.
Matthew Continetti is associate editor of The Weekly Standard and the author, most recently, of The Persecution of Sarah Palin (Sentinel Books).