In 2008, Barack Obama's campaign promised "change we can believe in." And young voters did believe in it: 2008 saw the third-highest turnout among young voters on record, and Obama captured an incredible 66 percent of their votes (by contrast, Al Gore and George W. Bush tied 48-48 for the youth vote). Here, finally, was a president young voters could believe in.
Five years later, young voters have stopped believing. A poll by Harvard's Institute of Politics found that young voters' trust in the institution of the presidency has dropped from 44 percent in 2010 to 32 percent now. In other words, Barack Obama's presidency has broken young voters' faith in the presidency.
The most damaging myth in American politics is that the presidency can fix our problems. It's a myth backed by a media machine that finds it convenient to frame American politics as a grand drama in which the president is the lead actor. It's a myth fed by every episode of the West Wing in which President Jed Bartlet solves the country's problems with a heroic speech. It's a myth cemented by every presidential candidate who knows that you win campaigns with inspiration, not realism. And it's a myth voters desperately want to believe.
The central promise of the Green Lantern Theory of the American Presidency is that fixing politics — whatever that means — will be easy. All it requires is picking the right charismatic leader, going to the most exciting rallies, and marking a ballot. After that's done, the president will take care of all the hard stuff. He'll bring about the change we wanted to believe in, and we can just sit back and let it happen.
But the American president doesn't wield that kind of power. Terrified of a monarchy, the Founding Fathers created a weak executive and a strong Congress. It's Congress that comes first in the Constitution. It's Congress that can write and pass laws. It's Congress that can overturn a presidential veto. The president, by contrast, doesn't even have the power to force Congress to consider legislation he favors — much less pass it over congressional objection.
Even areas of apparent presidential authority often turn out to be powers on loan from Congress. The president today has broad latitude to launch military forces against other nations. But it's Congress that has the power to declare war, and Congress that has the power to fund war, and if Congress decided to take back that authority, there's little the president could do to stop them.
Electing the right president is a (probably) necessary but not nearly sufficient condition to bringing change to American politics. The Obama years have been proof of that: in 2009 and 2010, when Obama was working with an overwhelmingly Democratic Congress, he was able to sign more change into law than arguably any president since Lyndon Johnson. Since 2010 and the Republican takeover of Congress, he's gotten almost nothing done. It's not Obama's energy that has flagged, or his agenda that's run dry. It's Congress's interest in that agenda.
If Millennials are learning that lesson — if they're figuring out that the presidency is oversold in American politics — then that's a very good thing. The first step towards changing American politics is knowing who actually has the power to change American politics. The problem is if they learn that lesson and then simply give up, deciding that if politics can't be changed through the easy, exciting vehicle of the presidency, then it's not worth changing at all.
A recent Washington Post/ABC News poll found that 79 percent of voters over age 65 said they were "certain" to vote in the midterm elections but only 53 percent of voters under 40 said the same. Millennials will never get change they can believe in if they don't turn out to vote for the people who can make that change.
"We are the ones we have been waiting for," Obama said in 2008. Not if we don't show up.