The Obama Generation, Revisited | The Nation


The Obama Generation, Revisited

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About the Author

Elizabeth Méndez Berry
Elizabeth Méndez Berry, an award-winning journalist, has written about culture and politics for publications...

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Not everyone at President Obama's healthcare rally at the University of Maryland on September 17 was as "fired up and ready to go" as he was. There were frat boys clowning around, students excited to see a president--any president--young men in matching T-shirts who were there solely because of their sheet metal workers union and one antiabortion activist with remarkable lungs. But it's safe to say that on that drizzly day, the Comcast Center was packed with 12,000 mostly young people who supported the president and his healthcare plan. As the marching band played "Copacabana" not once, not twice, but three times, student volunteers made sure the spectators--some of whom had lined up at 5:30 am--stayed within the cordoned areas. Young women in Healthcare '09 T-shirts craned to catch a glimpse of Obama, and after he finally emerged there was a cacophony of "I love you, Barack!"

On November 4, 2008, Barack Obama won 66 percent of voters under 30, increasing the Democratic share of the youth vote by 12 percent over 2004. Young people were among Obama's earliest and most important supporters; people under 30, for example, represented Obama's margin of victory in Iowa, the crucial first caucus. Rallies like this one, with thousands of young people putting their hands in the air for healthcare reform, are the most obvious indication of continuing youth enthusiasm for the president. Plenty in the crowd had volunteered for his campaign, including Eric Stehmer, 28, a University of Maryland graduate who has been unemployed for a year and has only catastrophic health coverage; Mouhamad Diabate, 21, a U of M student who canvassed for Obama and has several thousand dollars in medical bills that he's trying to ignore; and Chrisi West, 30, an enthusiastic Virginia "supervolunteer" whose parents lost their home when she was a child after her father got sick, and who seemed to know all the student volunteers from their work together on the campaign.

West had never touched politics before Obama, and now she's addicted, continuing to volunteer thirty-five hours a week for Organizing for America, the DNC group that grew out of the Obama campaign. The extraordinary impact of Obama's election on young people is not limited to supporting his legislative priorities. It's harder to measure than the audience at a rally, but the campaign is the reason, for example, a former professional cellist is now a union organizer and a former firefighter is an environmentalist. It galvanized a generation of first-time volunteers, and a year later many of them are still working for change they can believe in--which doesn't necessarily mean they're working for Obama himself.

In interviews with thirty young people around the country who worked on the Obama field campaign, almost all said that they continued their activism well after the endorphins of winning wore off. Obama has been called a rock star, but this group's experiences suggest that the campaign instilled a commitment to service, not a cult of personality. Though many former campaigners are still fans and several now work for the Obama administration, most are less interested in Washington politics than they are in community organizing. As former staffer Marcus Ryan, 25, says, "Once you turn on that community organizing perspective, it's hard to turn off."

According to experts and campaign veterans, the Obama for America field operation hooked its workers on organizing in a way never seen before. As former New Mexico staffer Elizabeth Kistin, 28, puts it, "The candidate gets people in the door, but it's the campaign that keeps them coming back." The Obama for America catchphrase was "Respect, Empower, Include," and the campaign offered young volunteers responsibility galore.

Still, not every worker had the same transformative experience. By all accounts this was the most diverse presidential field campaign ever, but it was largely white, middle-class college graduates who had the time and means to move from swing state to swing state as volunteers. Many of them earned staff positions as a result. But despite its weaknesses, the campaign seems to have achieved the near impossible: making crunchy old community organizing sexy. The question is: what will these freshly minted young organizers do with their new skills?

After the election, about half of the thirty interviewees are in school or returned to their old jobs, but the lives of the other half completely changed. Four work for the administration, five started their own Washington nonprofit, two are full-time organizers, two are organizers in training and one joined Teach for America. Three who were at different stages of becoming lawyers now have other plans. The interviewees joined the campaign for many reasons: because they identified with Obama, because they were sick of complaining, because they were antiwar, because they wanted healthcare reform, because they felt guilty for not helping John Kerry, because they loved Michelle.

Though most of them uprooted themselves and dedicated at least a month to the campaign, some integrated their activism into their everyday lives. Lana Wilson, 26, of New York, held a series of "Obamaerobics" fundraisers and sold Barack Your Body T-shirts to raise money for the campaign. Anthony Williams, 22, of Cincinnati, hired a white limousine to take people to the polls during a voter registration gig. Sgt. Mike Buchholz, 23, started a Soldiers for Obama Facebook group while he was in training at Fort Gordon, Georgia.

Longtime political observers are in awe of what Obama accomplished. "I spent most of my adult life where you say, Young people don't vote," says Democratic strategist Paul Maslin. "Now we have to throw aside those assumptions. That's a terrific thing. Obama took what we did with [Howard] Dean to new heights. People clicked in and clicked on. That activism can't be switched off easily."

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