Hoping to reconnect with young voters who helped elect him two years ago, President Obama on Thursday spoke out against Internet bullying and defended his administration's delay on repealing a ban on gays in the military.
But the live, televised town-hall gathering, sponsored by the cable networks MTV, BET and CMT, may not have revived young voters' support for the president as much as it highlighted how Obama lost their support in the first place.
In the hourlong exchange, Obama gave lengthy and at times off-topic answers and sidestepped dicey issues like a move to legalize marijuana in California that the 225 students and young professionals asked about.
In response to students' question Obama said cyber-bullying, which has been linked to student suicides, “just completely gets out of hand,” and said the military's “don't-ask-don't-tell” policy on gays would end during his tenure. Otherwise, the president did little to adjust his campaign talking points for a youthful audience.
Asked about deteriorating race relations as exemplified by Arizona's immigration debate, the proposed Islamic center near ground zero and other developments that run counter to the idealism of Obama's historic 2008 campaign, the president gave a lesson on economics.
“Historically, when you look at how America has evolved,” Obama began, explaining that “tribal attitudes” tend to rise when people are worried about money and jobs.
Leaving untouched the observation about his lost idealism, Obama urged the audience to “keep things in perspective,” adding, “You shouldn't be down about it.”
Despite his focus on energizing young voters, Obama's legislative record is short on items that appeal to them.
His health care reforms allow children to remain on their parents' insurance until the age of 26 — a change more likely to resonate with parents.
The nation's job woes that undercut Obama's support with older voters also hit hard with students and recent graduates who leave school saddled with debt and facing a grim employment outlook.
Moreover, many young voters who were drawn in 2008 to Obama's promises to end wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and to shutter the Guantanamo Bay prison facility, have been disappointed. While Iraq is largely concluded, Afghanistan has seen a troop surge and Guantanamo continues to operate.
Overall, Obama's approval rating among young people has dropped to 44 percent, down from 60 percent in May 2009, according to a new Associated Press-mtvU poll.
That falloff in youthful support also reflects the reality of governance. As a candidate, Obama made heavy political use of concepts like hope and idealism, plus his own personality, relative youth and coolness. But, as Obama often observes, running the country often requires making difficult choices that disappoint some supporters.
Asked about the legitimacy of the Tea Party, the president backed away from his recent criticisms of the movement, veering off into a lecture about outside groups that don't report their donors while spending millions on negative campaign ads.
“I do think there are a lot of good Republican ideas out there,” Obama said, but “elections are always a little bit funny.”