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Obama Online -- Where Are the Young Supporters?

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They were ubiquitous, they were tech-savvy, they were vocal -- nearly a year after the election, where are the young Obama supporters?

Where are the voters under 30 who preferred Obama over McCain by a staggering 66-32 percent margin, the biggest of any age group? Where is the mainstream media -- the same MSM that declared 2008 as "The Year of the Youth Vote" -- in covering how young people are impacted by the health care debate, which has dominated the news for months? (Studies show that a quarter of Americans ages 25 to 34 don't have health insurance, while about a third of Americans ages 21 to 24 live without it -- more than any other age group. This is partly because young people think they're invincible -- "Me? Get sick? No way!" -- but it's also partly because they're either out of work or their employers don't offer insurance.) Where is the Team Obama that adeptly leveraged the enthusiasm of its digitally-plugged young troops, who scheduled rallies on Facebook, passed YouTube videos around their network and sent text messages reminding their friends to vote? Speaking last month at George Washington University, just a few blocks from the White House, Obama's campaign manager David Plouffe told the college crowd: "Your generation won the election ... Obama simply wouldn't have been the nominee without you."

Tobin Van Ostern, a recent George Washington graduate, e-mailed me Plouffe's comment last week.
I first met Van Ostern in February 2007, at a packed, boisterous rally at George Mason University, in Northern Virginia. The event was organized by Students for Barack Obama, which began as a Facebook group in July 2006. The administrators of the Facebook group explained their support for Obama in specific terms -- the first piece of legislation introduced by the then-freshman senator from Illinois, they schooled me, was a bill that increases the maximum Pell Grant by 25 percent, to $5,100, for low-income students. (The late Sen. Ted Kennedy was a co-sponsor in the bill.) Van Ostern and I talked regularly throughout the campaign. He was one of the first people I bumped into in Des Moines, days before Christmas in the crucial days leading up to the Iowa caucuses. I spent hours canvassing with him on the day of the New Hampshire primary for an article in the Washington Post. The Facebook group he helped coordinate proved so effective, so quickly that it became an official part of the Obama for America campaign, with about 1,000 chapters spread out in every state. By Election Day Van Ostern served as the group's national director.

And now?

"Sure, young people are still getting involved -- inside and outside college campuses, either through the DNC [the Democratic National Committee] or OFA [Organizing for America, formerly Obama for America] or other youth groups," Van Ostern, 21, told me in a recent interview. He currently works for Campus Progress, the youth arm of the Center for American Progress. "But, as far as I can tell, engaging young people hasn't been a top priority for the OFA, DNC and the White House."

To be fair, OFA has had its successes. This week OFA announced that more than 300,000 calls have been placed to Congress members, urging them to support Obama's health care reform. OFA, which has heavily relied on its e-mails to Obama's campaign supporters, said many of those calls were generated not through e-mails but through social networks -- by supporters on Obama's Facebook fan page and Twitter followers, for example. OFA is housed under the DNC, and DNC spokesman Hari Sevugan sent HuffPost a detailed list outlining the various student led activities by young OFA volunteers in several states. In an interview, 23-year-old Steve Jackson in Indianapolis said that other volunteers like him have been busy working the phones, knocking on doors and getting the word out. "It's no longer the campaign," Jackson said, "but many of us are still on campaign mode."

But Team Obama, however, is now in governing mode. And the grassroots, tech-powered movement anchored by young voters -- 13 million e-mail addresses collected, more than half a billion dollars raised online -- has taken a backseat to the back-room, inside-the-Beltway realities of Washington, according to interviews with former campaign staffers, political analysts and Democratic strategists.

The sentiment is echoed in a blog on the popular site Tech Crunch that's gone viral in the past few days. "On the night of your acceptance speech, just before you walked on stage, 'you' sent out an email saying 'I will be in touch soon' -- but you disappeared and all we were left with was the strange feeling you get when your older brother ditches you for his cooler friends," began the post, which blogger Edo Segal wrote as an open letter to Obama. Frustrated and disappointed, Segal wrote that OFA needs to stop asking for money ("I pay a big bill every April that should just about cover it") and that the president should govern the way he campaigned -- engaging people online then getting them offline to achieve policy goals.

"It's almost like Obama the candidate campaigned in a new way and then Obama the president is governing the old way," said Democratic strategist Joe Trippi, who orchestrated Howard Dean's Internet-fueled campaign in 2004. "That's of course a generalization, and it may be an unfair generalization -- WhiteHouse.gov and the federal government in general are doing some exciting things to promote online transparency, after all -- but that's the perception that people online have."

Added Kate Albright-Hanna, a former campaign staffer who led Obama's online video strategy: "During the campaign, new media and old media were on par with each other. Now, in the White House, new media is under old media."

Indeed, Joe Rospars, the Obama campaign's director of new media, reported directly to Plouffe, the campaign manager. That was the kind of high-level access that was the envy of new media departments in other campaigns. In contrast, Macon Phillips, the White House's new media director, reports to the communications department, headed by Anita Dunn, and not to Rahm Emanuel, the White House chief of staff.

And while much attention is given to the Obama's (old) media strategy -- the White House's fight against FOX News, for example -- not enough attention is given to foster the online movement that Obama built during the campaign. Chris Hughes, the Facebook co-founder who ran the Obama campaign's own social networking site, said that the resources that the campaign had compared to what OFA has now "is like night and day." Hughes said in an interview: "It's clear that more resources are needed to target every demographic group, not just senior citizens but also young voters." Heather Smith, head of Rock the Vote, which registered more than 2 million young voters last year, said although the White House has been good at reaching out to youth organizations, "that doesn't mean they've been doing a lot to elevate the voices of young people -- not yet, at least."

Voters under 30 continue to overwhelmingly support the president, polls show. No surprise, then, that polls also show them backing Obama's health care reform, including the public option plan.

"There's been a missed opportunity here in showcasing the kind of youthful, optimistic, hopeful energy that greatly Obama benefited from during the campaign," said Morley Winograd, a fellow at the Democratic think-tank NDN and co-author of the seminal book "Millennial Makeover," an analysis of how the wired and online networked Millennial Generation is impacting politics. "But of course it does not at all mean that the opportunity has gone away."

*** OBAMA ONLINE: This is the first in a continuing series exploring the state of Obama's online movement. Are you an Obama supporter? What are you doing to stay involved? Share your comments below.***

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