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Young People Are Discouraged by Obama's Approach to Issues, but Still Keen to Help

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A new Harvard poll finds that a majority of 18 to 29-year-olds disapprove of President Barack Obama's handling of major issues, but nevertheless most of them (58%) approve of the president's job performance generally, and many intend to help get him re-elected. It's important to remember that this age group will be the largest generation of voters in the country's history when they all come of age in the next five years.

The poll was conducted by Harvard's Institute of Politics, located at the John F. Kennedy School of Government. Poll details are available here. John Della Volpe is the Director of Polling for the Institute. He says the numbers show that, "If nothing else, this generation is fiercely independent and should not be taken for granted. Young people are no longer outliers -- their opinions of Obama fall in line with rest of USA." He feels, and I agree, that "our government and our political parties need to continually challenge and inspire young adults."

As we all know, Obama's victory in the 2008 election was secured by his campaign's ability to mobilize the youth vote. According to the Institute's research, nearly one-in-five (19%) young voters actively engaged on behalf of the 2008 Obama campaign in some way (in addition to voting). In contrast, only six percent (6%) did the same for Senator McCain's campaign. That's more than a three-to-one margin. Among the more popular activities of Obama volunteers: persuading friends (55%), participating online (30%), volunteering time (20%) and donating money (16%).

But in the wake of recent Republican gubernatorial victories in New Jersey and Virginia, many wonder whether the fabled Obama youth machine will stay motivated when Obama presumably comes up for re-election in 2012.

The answer, so far, is yes. When these most active Obama supporters were asked if they would engage in similar activities for him in 2012, 55 percent reported that they would be very likely to engage and an additional 30 percent indicated that they would be somewhat likely to engage. Thirteen percent (13%) reported that they were either not very (7%) or not at all likely (6%) to engage in 2012.

The Institute asked these same Obama volunteers their likelihood of engaging on political issues between now and 2012 on behalf of the president, and 34 percent indicated that they would be very likely to do so if asked, with an additional 43 percent somewhat likely.

That being said, many young adults are not happy with the country's current direction. At the moment, less than one in four (23%) 18 to 29-year-olds believe things are generally headed in the right direction, 37 percent say things are off on the wrong track -- with a slight plurality (39%) unsure which direction the country is headed. Nearly two-in-five (37%) Democrats believe the U.S. is headed in the right direction, which contrasts sharply to Republicans (6%) and Independents (15%).

The economy is unquestionably the top national issue of concern for today's younger adults. Almost half of 18 to 29-year-olds today (48%) say economic issues are their top national concern, more than double the second highest issue (health care: 21%) and nearly five times the third highest (War: 10%). Young people have little faith in Washington's efforts to resuscitate the economy. More young Americans believe that the government's efforts will hurt (30%) rather than help (26%) their financial situation, and a plurality, 41 percent, say these efforts will have no impact.

The issue that shows the biggest rift between Obama and young voters is Afghanistan. An overwhelming majority disagree with the president's recent decision to send 30,000 additional American troops. Less than one-third (31%) favor such a decision and 66 percent oppose it according to the November 4 to 16 poll, which was before Obama had announced his final troop surge decision. Among only the 18 to 24-year-olds in the survey, there was slightly more opposition to the troop buildup off college campuses than on campus.

Despite the intense national debate, the issue of health care reform has not dominated the political landscape of the average young voter aged 18 to 29. Quite the contrary, as less than one-in-ten (8%) are following the discussions in Washington on this subject closely, 34% following them somewhat closely, 33% not very closely, and 23% not at all. The percentages are nearly identical on college campuses.

Obama should step up his game if he wants to ensure a repeat of his strong lead with youth in 2012.

Don Tapscott is the author of 13 books about new technologies in business and society, most recently Grown Up Digital. He is Chair of the nGenera Insight think tank, and an Adjunct Professor at the Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto.