“Politics” has always been the essence of boring. When kids and grownups sat at separate tables for dinner, the kids talked about video games and music and told dirty jokes that we thought our parents couldn’t hear. The parents, as far as the kids could, tell, never strayed from a single topic.
One word seemed to encapsulate all the reasons Peter Pan refused to grow up. Mundane yet complex and largely devoid of explosions, politics was exactly the kind of thing a kid wanted to steer clear of. Like fine scotch, politics seemed something better left to adults.
That is, until 2008, when Barack Obama rallied the nation’s voting and nonvoting youth into a frenzy of adoration. Gone was the stuffiness, the decided uncoolness of politics: Obama admitted to having done drugs, balled it up regularly and, most impressively, spoke about government in a way that we could almost understand.
Even we ignorant kids knew what a disaster the Bush years had been, and Obama’s booming message of change was simple and accessible. He had rap songs written about him, he had his face emblazoned on Shepard Fairey’s immortal “Hope” poster and suddenly an Obama pin or T-shirt was a must-have back-to-school accessory. If ever a politician were to be called hip, it was Mr. Obama. At once a brand and a movement, he was something everyone wanted to be a part of.
And when Election Day rolled around, he reaped the rewards. According to a Tufts study, 2 million more voters aged 18-29 went to the polls in 2008 than in 2004. What’s more, they didn’t just vote: They voted Democratic. A Pew Research Group study showed Obama taking an unprecedented 32 percent lead amongst voters aged 18-29 on his way to the Oval Office.
Four years later, the promise that seemed too good to be true has proven just that. As much as we wanted Obama to walk on water, to effortlessly part the murky seas of Washington and bring about the change he promised, he has turned out to be mortal like the rest of us. Maybe Obama has underperformed; maybe Republican obstructionism has him stuck in the mud; maybe our hopes were unrealistic to begin with, even under the best of circumstances.
Regardless, we still face many of the same problems that we wanted to leave behind in electing Obama. The economy is stagnant, Wall Street still has carte blanche, global warming may be accelerating and Washington’s partisan paralysis shows no signs of letting up. The picture is bleak, and it is hard not to feel a twinge of disappointment that Obama has not been able to wave his magic wand and make it all disappear.
But there never was a magic wand. Perhaps young voters’ 2008 enthusiasm was fueled by some measure of naivety, our lionization of a man in whom we saw everything we wanted to see. It was so easy to jump on Obama’s bandwagon without a second thought; the whole thing was neatly prepackaged, a miracle cure for everything that ailed us, and we flaunted our “Change” pins and T-shirts with oblivious enthusiasm. Obama was a label we rushed to wear.
But a vote is not a fashion statement. Is the sheen of novelty all that drew us to the polls, or did we actually believe in what he had to say? Are the ideals we embraced in 2008 just so four years ago?
Much has been made of our generation’s shrinking attention span, and the upcoming election is going to be a critical litmus test of whether we bother to maintain our commitments. Beyond that, it’s going to be a test of whether we were ever committed at all. Come November, we will be forced to confront how much our dedication four years ago actually meant. Was “Yes We Can” worth any more than “Just Do It?” Was Obama just a fad?
We will find out soon enough, and the answer will carry more than a little weight. Obama is the same candidate he was then, minus the new-car smell. Given Mitt Romney’s recent comments regarding government dependency, the lines are just as clear as they were in 2008. Whether American youth will stick around for the second act remains to be seen.
David Whipple is a freshman in Pierson College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.