Looking to recapture his 2008 youth vote magic, President Obama is urging college students to “start paying attention” and re-engage in politics this November.
“Even though this may not be as exciting as a presidential election, it's going to make a huge difference in terms of whether we're going to be able to move our agenda forward over the next couple of years,” Obama told college students on a White House conference call.
With Democrats facing the prospect of major losses in November, Obama is intensifying targeted appeals to the party's base.
Obama and Vice President Biden this week are hitting college campuses in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania in an effort to reconnect with their once-enthusiastic youth constituency.
“You can't sit it out,” Obama told the students. “Democracy is never a one and done proposition.”
But things have changed since 2008, when Obama's historic candidacy, his cool attitude and anti-war stance helped draw enthusiastic young voters to his quarter. The realities of two years in office have shifted perceptions — a turnaround the president acknowledged.
“Naturally, some of the excitement and enthusiasm started to drain away because people felt like, gosh, all we're reading about are constant arguments in Washington and things haven't changed as much as we would like as quickly as we'd like,” Obama said.
Midterm elections do not usually bring out younger voters. Without Obama on the ballot, getting them excited is a tough sell.
“Another problem re-engaging them is that students are strapped by this economy and struggling along with everyone else,” said Susan MacManus, a political scientist at the University of South Florida.
Obama's vaunted database of e-mail addresses from the 2008 campaign has little utility with young voters this year, MacManus said.
“Every e-mail they get is a call to action that closes with a request for money and they don't like it,” she said. “They don't have money to give.”
Obama in 2008 won 66 percent of the under-30 vote, and 53 percent of the vote overall. An analysis by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, however, concluded the youth vote was not crucial to Obama's victory.
Stephen Hess, a presidential scholar at the Brookings Institution, said Obama has lost a bit of his luster with younger voters, and may not be able to transfer what's left to congressional elections.
“The political process rarely takes hold for most people until they go to their first PTA meeting,” Hess said.
Obama is touting increased scholarship assistance, provisions in health care reform that benefit recent college graduates and his job-creation efforts as measures benefiting the young.
But lack of progress on other issues — including the environment, gay rights, Guantanamo prison, the war in Afghanistan and more — work against him with his younger and generally more liberal constituency.
“A lot of younger voters were excited by Barack Obama's promise to put the country back on track, but two years later he's failed to do that,” said Republican strategist Alex Conant. “It will take more than speeches to win back their support.”