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Bakari Kitwana Headshot

Has Obama Earned the Youth Vote?

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As the 2010 midterm election season winds down, electoral politics experts agree that 18-29 year-old voters have a pivotal role to play on November 2nd. Anxiety among Democrats and Republicans concerning the way the political winds will blow the youth vote is crystallizing around the idea that over the last two years President Barack Obama did not fulfill his campaign commitments to the 14 million plus young voters so crucial to his 2008 victory.

Last week, the Houston, Texas local Fox affiliate framed the question like this: "Youth Vote: Obama Boost or Backlash?" or as reporter Greg Googan put it, "Twenty-four recession-racked months later, the question now looms: Is it still 'change' young Americans can believe in?"

When it comes to young voters, has the Obama Administration gone far enough?

University of Chicago Political Science Professor Cathy Cohen suggests in her new book Democracy Remixed, which should be required reading for any politician serious about the future of our democracy, that this sentiment taps into the reality staring young voters in the face everyday: failing schools, a cost of living out of sync with limited job options, an unforgiving criminal justice system, and an escalating war in Afghanistan with 20 and 30-somethings disproportionately on the frontlines, to name a few.

Several weeks before the 2008 presidential election, a rapsessions.org survey asked 18-29 year-old young voters: "What are the most important issues that you want the next president to address?" Among the top three were ending the war in Iraq and creating living wage jobs. Making college education affordable and universal healthcare also topped the list. The survey had a margin of error of 3.2 percentage points, included young Americans equal parts white, black and Latino, male and female and cut across diverse income brackets and regions of the country.

Although Obama's handling of the race question, unemployment and the partisan divide have come to dominate the mid-term elections climate, the real challenge for young voters is to consider the distance between Obama's campaign promises and what he actually delivered since young voters sent him to Washington with a mandate for change.

The economic stimulus bill was signed by Obama into law last fall (and some economists argue it has helped keep the US economy out of a depression). After a year-long protracted struggle, healthcare reform passed in the spring. And as this past summer came to a close, Obama ended the war in Iraq with an August 30 deadline for withdrawal of combat troops. Additionally, during the Obama years, we've seen historic student loan and credit card reform, as well as the extension of unemployment insurance.

Even if young voters need him to go further, and even as the public perception of Obama as a do-nothing president persists, these are pretty solid results not far from young voter's top concerns going into the 2008 Election--not to mention Obama's appointment of two Supreme Court justices (Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan) who will inevitably counterbalance the previous conservative and male bent of the court.

Rather than getting drawn into misinformation-filled partisan bickering, such an assessment is going to take an honest eye on what voters asked for in 2008.

Without spin or hyperbole, scores of these voters began to do just that when they gathered in Atlanta a little more than a week ago for Ignite 2010: From the Blogs to the Blocks, a non-partisan half-day convention hosted by the League of Young Voters Education Fund. The outcome of the gathering may offer a more substantive glimpse of things to come.

There, scores of influential young activists, entertainers, and organizers came together from across the country to talk about ways of keeping their constituents engaged next month and beyond. These are the far too often nameless, faceless young leaders behind the incredible youth voter increases in 2004, 2006 and 2008.

Nearly the exact opposite of what mainstream media has been projecting about a youth vote in crisis, the dominant atmosphere at Ignite 2010 was of young voters still heavily committed to the change they voted for two years ago. Without a doubt, in most of the discussions, it was clear that young voters needed much more from Washington. But on the oft-repeated refrain of whether or not Obama has done enough, the sentiment seemed mixed.

At the end of the day, most can discern that the questions of overall youth satisfaction with their plight and Obama's productivity aren't exactly the same thing.

If this distinction, along with their track record since 2004, is any indication, then the take-away message is that young voters are not sitting out the mid-terms. Instead, they seem more interested in mastering the art of pushing the president and lawmakers even closer to their expectations. Ironically, they may be taking their cues from a small minority of voters who have shown resolve at pushing a liberal president and Democratic majority Congress further to the right.

Bakari Kitwana is senior media fellow at the Harvard Law based think tank The Jamestown Project and the author of the forthcoming Hip-Hop Activism in the Obama Era (Third World Press, 2010).