I turned 18 just months before the 2008 presidential election, making me eligible to participate in one of the most historic races our country has ever seen. Casting my ballot for Barack Obama was anti-climatic—I was away at college, so I filled out an absentee ballot. The act of voting didn’t feel all that monumental. But election night did.
As soon as the major networks had determined that Obama would be the next president of the United States, I ran outside with the rest of my freshman dorm and celebrated on the quad. It was like a scene from a cheesy movie: hundreds of students congregated in the center of campus, cheering and commemorating the moment we had all been hoping for. It’s an image I often conjure up when older generations call us apathetic.
I voted for Obama in 2008 because I was enchanted by his rhetoric. I wanted a president who believed in the same issues that I did, who thought LGBT rights and racial equality weren’t just important but essential. I was tired of old white men making decisions for millions of people who didn’t have their same privileges. I wanted a president who was the polar opposite of George W. Bush, someone who would get us out of imperialist conflicts in the Middle East masquerading as war.
I wanted Barack Obama to be my president. I knocked on doors with a friend on Super Tuesday, and handed out pamphlets about the former senator from Illinois in a predominantly conservative neighborhood. I read his memoir on my spring break in high school. I devoured all his speeches on television and YouTube. Then, I voted accordingly. Obama’s campaign didn’t just inspire me to want change: he made me want to be a part of that change.
A recent survey from Harvard’s Institute of Politics finds that 54 percent of millennials now disapprove of Obama’s job performance. (Compare that to a 2009 poll that showed a 58 percent approval rating among young people.) America’s youth has changed its tune, and for good reason.
For many of us, what came after Obama’s campaign was disappointment after disappointment. Sure, the first bill signed into law under his presidency was the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, a piece of legislation aimed at leveling the gender pay gap. But these kind of symbolic measures weren’t representative of the more radical ideologies Obama had, to me, once exhibited.
President Obama campaigned, and sold me, on an antiwar platform. Nearly five years later, my friends and family are still being deployed to Afghanistan. Guantanamo Bay is still up and running, and the president has supported torture tactics despite backlash and resistance. His lack of comprehensive immigration reform continues to hurt our nation: by the end of 2013, almost 2 million people will have been deported under President Obama’s watch. (To compare, the same amount of people were deported in total between 1892 and 1997.) The Obama administration has been accused of being “the most hostile” administration toward the press in history. Not to mention that little NSA spying issue.
With every day spent in the White House, the president’s bright-eyed idealism seemed to shift toward the same old politics of every man who came before him. In turn, my idealism shifted right along with his. Am I disappointed? Of course. Would I vote for him again? Absolutely.
I’m not the only millennial living with this contradiction. Harvard’s new study also showed that46 percent of millennials surveyed would vote for Obama again. Of course we would—because the alternative is way scarier. As long as the US has to operate and govern within the democratic two-party system, these are the choices we have to make.
When November 6, 2012 came around, I was in my last semester of college. I felt like my political consciousness had come full circle. This time, I was little older, and a little more sober to the fact that the president is limited to the political systems currently in place. I knew what Obama had done, and the promises he hadn’t fulfilled.
I cast another absentee ballot for Obama. And this time, when he won, I felt my hope a little more absent as well.