Watch a video about the Obama youthquake, one year later, here.
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.”