Barack Obama: The 'whatever' candidate

During his freshman year at Occidental College, Barack Obama attended an anti-apartheid rally.

Amid the protest chants and speeches, Obama began to wonder whether the demonstrators were wasting their time, trapped in a 1960s way of trying to bring about change, a way that just didn’t work anymore.

“The whole thing was a farce, I thought to myself — the rally, the banners, everything,” Obama wrote in his autobiography, “Dreams from My Father.”

Jeff Gordinier, who wrote a book on Generation X, said that epiphany secured Obama’s membership in the increasingly influential cohort.

“It was a profound moment in that book,” said Gordinier, 41, the author of the recently published “X Saves the World: How Generation X Got the Shaft but Can Still Keep Everything from Sucking.”

“And that is how a lot of Generation Xers feel — that we grew up with this newsreel footage of the 1960s, and you sort of wonder if that approach to change is effective anymore,” Gordinier said.

“Plus, he listened to the B-52s in his dorm room,” he said. “So that says it all.”

Broadly defined as the Americans born between 1961 and 1981, Generation X has in many ways been a cultural reaction to the baby boom. Boomers rebelled against the stability of the 1950s, but Gen X got stuck with the tab: rampant divorce, drug use and the decline of American power and prestige during the 1970s.

Sociologists have mostly defined Xers as a slacker generation — notable for their disengagement from the institutions of their parents and grandparents, especially politics. But at the convention in Denver this week, Democrats will make Obama the first Gen X presidential nominee. After 16 years of boomers in the White House, his fellow Xers may be ready to swing the outcome of the election his way.

Generation X, though, is a tricky constituency. While Gen Xers effect an air of cynicism and ironic detachment, the quality they value most is authenticity. As Obama becomes more of a slick, prepackaged brand, he needs to keep his iconic candidacy “real” enough to appeal to a generation deeply suspicious of political poseurs.

“Here we have this young, African-American candidate who is in his mid-40s, who has this slogan that gets repeated about change — and this withdrawn, almost cynical quality that Generation Xers have [is] redeemed by that” said Methodist minister Andrew Thompson, creator of the Web site

It’s not just that Obama listens to Sheryl Crow and Jay-Z on his iPod, or that he likes arugula salad and hits the gym three times a day. Obama likes to tell audiences he hasn’t been in Washington long enough to “stew and boil” the hope out of him.

His plea is to a generation that has mostly been disengaged from politics, rejecting the pursuit as phony and ineffective. Now, Obama is telling them “We are the change that we’ve been waiting for.”

Obama’s anti-cynical mantra — “Yes we can” — has been turned into a hip-hop video by Generation Xer and Black Eyed Peas frontman It has been viewed more than 10 million times on YouTube.

“He speaks the generational language,” Thompson said. “People of Generation X hear him and the way he talks and think we can really rise above the mess we find ourselves in.”

And it shows. In a recent New York Times poll, Obama led rival John McCain in every age group other than 65 and older. And Obama is performing better with Americans in their 40s than either Democrats John Kerry or Al Gore were at this point in 2004 and 2000.

Obama was born in 1961, the same year as Douglas Coupland, the author of “Generation X: Tales from an Accelerated Culture.” Coupland’s book helped define Generation X and popularized the use of the term. He described Xers as the disaffected post-baby boom generation that is “underemployed, overeducated, intensely private and unpredictable.”

“Generation X likes the novelty of Obama,” said historian Neil Howe, who described Gen X in his book “Generations” as the 13th since American independence and the first to move backward in indicators such as income and educational attainment. “They just think this is great — put this new guy in and just turn stuff around. Upheaval has always been good for Generation X.”

Also appealing for Xers is Obama’s multicultural background.

When the baby boomers were in college in the mid-1960s, the nation was about 90 percent white, a proportion that had stayed roughly the same since the Civil War. When Obama was in college in the early 1980s, the minority population had already grown to 20 percent of the population and was rising fast. Today, more than one-third of Americans are immigrants.

“Generation X is the largest immigrant generation we’ve had,” Howe said.

And the idea of living in a multicultural society is largely seen as a positive.

Generation Xers got their vision of the perfect nuclear family from “The Cosby Show.” They grew up laughing at Eddie Murphy (also born in 1961), being thrilled by Michael Jackson (born in 1958) and believing Michael Jordan (born in 1963) could fly.

As the first generation to use the word “whatever” as both a comeback and an outlook on life, Gen Xers also like the way Obama deals with critics. The day after a harrowing debate hosted by ABC that focused on Obama’s past connections to radicals, such as the Rev. Jeremiah Wright and William Ayers, Obama didn’t show anger. In a reference to 38-year-old rap mogul Jay-Z’s hit song “Dirt Off Your Shoulder,” Obama addressed the incident the next day by simply brushing some invisible detritus from his jacket.

During a Democratic debate last January in New Hampshire, the audience roared when Obama told the moderator he had been watching an NFL playoff game backstage rather than focusing his attention on Republican attacks against him in the earlier GOP debate.

“He presents himself and this idea that he is unflappable and doesn’t seem to get flustered by anything,” Gordinier said. “People find it immensely cool.”

But Obama’s carefully constructed image could work against him, Howe said, because Generation X has an inherent dislike of brand names, which is essentially what Obama is becoming.

A blogger created a hit Internet video set to the song “Building a Religion” by Gen X rock band Cake that mocks the cult of Obama and his well-orchestrated campaign. Adulation for the candidate is the source of frequent ridicule on the Comedy Central cable network by Gen X favorites Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert.

“Xers have this idea that if too many people like it, there must be something wrong with it,” Howe said. “The part that sticks a little bit with them is the idea that Obama’s candidacy is a huge cultlike thing where everyone loves him, everyone believes in him, there is no dissent and he is idolized by the media.”

Fishman said Obama’s “entertainment-style rallies and the fact that he backs off from town-hall meetings,” are also a minus for reality-seeking Generation X voters.

What Obama lacks in town-hall earthiness he makes up in Internet savvy. Not only did the Internet enable him to raise far more money than his former Democratic rival Hillary Clinton and (so far) Republican candidate John McCain, Obama’s campaign also made smart use of sites like YouTube and MySpace, both created and frequented by Gen Xers.

Obama’s MySpace page, for instance, has 435,000 friends. McCain’s page has about 62,000 friends.

Obama still has Generation X in his camp, but it may not be easy keeping them there.

“If Obama goes in a direction of trying to become an even bigger brand, encompassing all points of view, not taking sides and goes this transcendental risk-free route, this could be a problem,” Howe said. “What Xers would like to see is a guy who is human, who doesn’t mind taking risk, and they’d love to see a guy who goes up against the status quo in his proposal to change things.”

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