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Sara Haile-Mariam Headshot

Obama's MTV Town Hall Was a Missed Opportunity

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It was never about Barack Obama.

He said as much on the campaign trail. Time and time again he would remind the thousands that gathered to hear him speak that the election was not about him... a sentiment that's been lost over the last two years. This inconsistency, as subtle as it may be, is the subtext for everything wrong with the administration's message.

It was about us.

In his words, it was about "the power of ordinary Americans", the promise of millions of voices calling for the kind of change that transcended one election cycle.

Over the course of the last two years this administration has distorted the "we" in "Yes We Can", most blatantly during the health care debate. Whenever President Obama evoked the term "we" more often than not he was referring to himself and Congress. Back room deals and convoluted congressional process took the place of the sort of change that comes from the ground up. This distortion was at its worst at yesterday's MTV, BET, and CMT town hall (see a full recap of Campus Progress' live chat here.)

The president spent the bulk of the one hour town hall talking over an audience that asked him pointed and honest questions by stating what we already knew. The Dream Act is important, Don't Ask Don't Tell must go, bullying is bad, bipartisanship is good. His responses were either obvious or overly wonky for a crowd that wasn't asking for clarification on the substance of each policy but the state of it.

Where's the change we voted for?

Rather than provide context, the president regurgitated talking points and laundry lists that seemed to be directed at the pundits rather than at the young people in the room. Much has been said about the challenges of turning out young voters without having Barack Obama on the ballot. Yet the truth is that in 2008, 69% of young voters cited a candidate's positions on the issues as the most important factor in determining who they choose to support.

The issues are on the ballot this November 2nd.

President Obama could have used the town hall to issue a call to action, to articulate how each person in the room could contribute to the ongoing work of changing our country. If you're upset about the partisan tone of our politics, bring it up with the elected officials who spend more time questioning the president's place of birth and the "communist" undertones of his rhetoric than debating him on the merits of his policies. If you're upset that Don't Ask Don't Tell hasn't been repealed; identify elected officials who are standing in its way. Lobby them when it comes time for a vote and let them know that you're bringing your passion for equality into the polling place with you. If you're upset about youth unemployment, bring it up with the representatives, Democrats and Republicans, who voted down a Youth Summer Jobs bill last spring.

Election Day puts us in a position of power, in a position to hold members of Congress accountable.

Just as the 2008 presidential election was not about Barack Obama -- this administration shouldn't be about him either. We've been asked to "pledge to support" the president's agenda -- when in actuality we signed up to impact it. We've been asked to donate our money instead of our ideas and our passion. We've been accused of whining when really we're having a hard time coming to terms with the notion that something is now impossible.

I'm guessing it stems from being told that something was "impossible" two years ago. I'm guessing it's grounded in the fact that we already turned the impossible into the improbable, and the improbable into the inevitable, and the inevitable into reality...

I'm guessing we're a generation that looks unkindly on the justification that some things just can't get done... I'm guessing we'd probably respond to the insistence that while things have been hard, the unfinished business of changing our country relies on us.

What President Obama needs to do is make the midterms about something larger than who wins the House or the Senate, grounded in something more profound than the individual candidates on the ballots. He did it in Madison, he did at the Gen 44 event, and then he took 12 steps backwards yesterday.

If he can't deliver this message then Progressives have to do it without him.

As frustrated as I am, I don't believe my country and the future of my generation should be punished for his lack of consistency.

Let's face it, we may not have millions to invest in candidates, and we may not be as loud as the Tea Party, yet on Election Day we're all equals. We all enter the ballot with one vote.

Young people are not interested in taking the country back; we're insisting that we move the country forward. Our ability to do that, relies on us.

If that's the mission, just as 2008 wasn't about Barack Obama, 2010 can't be about him either.