In a conference call with college journalists on Monday, President Obama made a direct pitch to the young voters who flocked to his campaign two years ago but seem largely disaffected and disenchanted this time around.
"Democracy is never a one and done proposition," the president said, "it is something that requires sustained engagement and sustained involvement."
Speaking before he headed out for a rally at the University of Wisconsin (with Vice President Joseph Biden set to go to Penn State University), Obama's remarks were his most impassioned plea yet for students to head to the polls come November. Explicit in them was the admission that the enthusiasm that marked his run for office has not carried over during the two years of governance.
"Back in 2008, a lot of young people got involved in my campaign because they... generally felt that we needed to bring about fundamental changes in how we operate," said Obama. "And this is all before the financial crisis. And I think lot of people felt our campaign gave them a vehicle to get engaged and involved in shaping this country over the long term.
"I've been having all these fights with Republicans to make progress on a whole bunch of these issues. And during that time, naturally, some of the excitement and enthusiasm started to drain away because people felt like, gosh, were reading about the constant arguments in Washington and things haven't changed as much as we would have liked or as quickly as we would have liked -- even though the health care bill got passed, financial regulatory bill got passed, and we brought an end to our combat mission in Iraq. Still it seems as if a lot of the old politics is still operating in Washington."
Still, in a reflection of Democratic anxiety heading into the midterm vote, the president urged students to remember that change is "really hard in this country." The sluggish pace of progress was not an excuse for political apathy he insisted, but rather an invitation for heightened involvement.
"You can't sit it out," said Obama. "You can't suddenly just check in once every ten years or so on an exciting presidential election and then not pay attention during big midterm elections where we have a real big choice between Democrats and Republicans.... That is a big choice. That has big consequences. So even though this may not be as exciting as a presidential election it is going to make a huge difference in terms of whether we are going to be able to move our agenda forward over the next couple years."
The elevated youth involvement during Obama's presidential run was largely the exception to the rule. And most seasoned observers hold little to no hope that students will turn out in numbers that come close to resembling those of 2008. The president's appeal may help. But being on the ballot (even at his depressed popularity levels) would matter much more.