When Barack Obama first ran for president in 2008, he famously mobilized and inspired millions of young voters for change. But yesterday, at the start of his presidency's seventh year, he was asked by a 19-year-old woman: why should young people care about politics, anyway?
The question was asked by YouTube star Bethany Mota as part of a Q&A session organized by the website. "Before I came to do this interview for YouTube, I never really followed politics that much," Mota said, adding, "A lot of my online audience in the younger generation don't seem as interested in it." So, she asked, "Why should the younger generation be interested in politics and why should it matter to them?"
Obama didn't have a pat answer. He opened by explaining how "politics is just, 'how do we organize ourselves as a society?'" Then he touched on issues from the cost of college, to discrimination against gays and lesbians, to the environment. Mid-answer, he changed course and began an extended metaphor about how people sometimes debate with their friends over which movie to watch — comparing it to our national debate over politics.
As Obama said during the speech, he has no more campaigns to run. But still, the White House has been trying hard to spread its message, gunning particularly for audiences in the digital space. They announced news on LinkedIn, posted the speech's full text beforehand on Medium, and hoped to make the speech the most interactive State of the Union ever. Yet when he was asked a simple question — why young people didn't care about politics — he didn't have a clear answer.
This was a striking contrast from 2008. Back then, Obama didn't have to convince young people why they should care about politics. Now, in early 2015, a young woman was essentially telling him on air that she'd been uninterested in everything he's done over the past six years.
It's the latest indication that while Obama may have been the inspiring catalyst for change back then, now he's part of the wallpaper for young people who've come of age during his presidency. The issues that motivated young people to turn out in 2008 — unhappiness with the Iraq war, the collapsing economy, frustration with the Bush administration, the desire to make history with the first black president — are no longer relevant. And Obama's idealistic hope of changing politics clearly hasn't panned out.
So, why should young people care — and why should they bother to turn out in 2016? This is a question Hillary Clinton's campaign-in-waiting is struggling with. As Ron Fournier wrote in National Journal, Clinton's "challenge is to convince voters that, unlike Obama, she can deliver on her promises." While endorsing many of the same proposals as Obama, she'll have to argue that she is uniquely positioned to actually make those changes happen.
It's worth noting that when Obama ran for reelection in 2012, there was much hand-wringing over whether young voters would bother to turn out to the polls. But in the end, they did — and they went for Obama in such numbers that their margin was decisive, according to a study out of Tufts. Once the general election approaches and there is a Republican nominee, it's quite possible that Democrats will again manage to convince young people that turning out to vote is extremely important.
But, so far at least, it's unclear how they'll manage to do this. What is clear is that the Obama era is coming to a close — and it's not obvious what will replace it.