The effect of presidents and presidential candidates on the overall health of their parties is a long-recognized phenomenon in American politics. Candidates for the Senate and House look to their party’s presidential hopeful to set the tone for the election year and influence the political fate of their own state or district. To the extent that history has shown the potential for presidential candidates and incumbents to inspire or dampen their parties’ aspirations, the Obama administration is no exception.
Through the president’s unapologetic defense of drone strikes and NSA surveillance, quiet shrug toward a failed economy, and perseverance in foreign policies that diminish America’s global stature, President Obama has continually tested his supporter’s threshold for hypocrisy, and the burden of shouldering support for the president is starting to weigh heavily. With each passing scandal, vigor among Democrats and progressives is gradually being sapped.
Five long, economically recessed, diplomatically rocky, scandal-ridden years after the election of Barack Obama, that feeling of frenzied excitement—of hope and optimism without any demonstrable cause or justification—that so animated the American left (and, for that matter, much of the American center) appears now a distant memory. Vacuous slogans invoking “Hope” and “Change” that enlivened Obama’s candidacy have been displaced by alibis, excuses, and the sort of press room double-speak that has long been symptomatic of America’s most troubled administrations.
The result: looking ahead at 2014 midterm elections and, dare we project so far, the 2016 presidential race, Democrats may be facing a quiet crisis, driven in large part by disillusionment in their primary support base: left-leaning young people.
If one thing can be said for certain about young Americans’ political views today, it is that despite their support for him in 2008 and, more moderately, 2012, they haven’t had much to be excited about under Obama’s presidency. The most recent youth unemployment rates measure it at 16.2%–more than double the rate of the general population—as young people are made to compete with elders taking on part-time jobs once considered the exclusive purview of high school and college students. Student debt has soared in recent years to an average of $26,600 per borrowing student, with two-thirds of college students entering the workforce already in debt.
Granted: poll numbers among young people aren’t always as firmly grounded in performance statistics and can be highly subject to the sort of political messaging that comes in election years. Nonetheless, young people seem to be getting the message, with Obama’s June approval ratings plummeting to 48%–a 15% drop in the span of a month. The timing of this drop is revealing, coinciding with the commencement of the NSA scandal. Sixty percent of Americans 18-29 were found to support Edward Snowden’s disclosure of the NSA’s warrantless surveillance program. The sea change indicates that if a bad economy wasn’t enough to turn young people against Obama, privacy invasions certainly strike a nerve.
How far does this trend go? Are young people turning to the right? Maybe. Heritage Foundation statistics show young women 18 to 29 are polling more fiscally conservative than ever before. But, more likely, if there is a significant change in the results of coming elections, it will be largely driven by a lack of prominent, compelling figures emerging on the left—a problem that the right has successfully overcome since 2008
In a scene that was itself a compliment to the American political system’s responsiveness in the face of widespread grievance, the midterm elections of 2010 witnessed a unique period of self-criticism on the right as it recognized how many of its own were, at the end of the day, complicit in the policies they opposed: ObamaCare, the stifling of American energy production, job-killing regulations, a soaring national debt, and rising taxes. The young Tea Party caucus that arose from this dissatisfaction not only transformed the conversation in Congress and put pressure on senior members; it also landed multiple candidates in the Republican primaries—Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, and Ron Paul.
Looking ahead, the Tea Party has already boldly committed to ousting veteran Republican Lindsay Graham, and already boasts at least two presidential potentials for 2016: Rand Paul and Ted Cruz. With an ensemble of young, vocal, recognizable figures in national politics, from Justin Amash and Tim Scott to Mike Lee and Nikki Haley, the caucus is poised to give strong support to whoever takes the Republican nomination for 2016.
Not so for Democrats, who have yet to distance themselves from party leadership, have continually toed the president’s line, and have failed to distinguish themselves individually on the national stage. Democrats on the Hill have suffered for becoming, under the leadership of Obama, a drove of faceless masses. Whereas figures like Paul and Cruz are invited onto MSNBC and interviewed by left-leaning publications—if not supportively, then at least for the novelty of observing politicians with something unique to say—Democrats’ cult of personality has been monopolized by the commander-in-chief.
As if this lack of individual distinction on the left was not enough, those who have succeeded in making themselves known and who would, by political logic, appear to be the future of the Democratic party—figures like Anthony Weiner and Jesse Jackson, Jr.—have been undone by crippling scandals and controversy. That political veterans like Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden should be the forerunners for Democrats in 2016 is not simply by virtue of the force of their own personas, but also the absence of younger, charismatic challengers.
It is now less than fourteen months until the 2014 midterm elections—in politics, a lifetime. The situation described here for Democrats—their dwindling support among young Americans and lack of young, charismatic potential candidates—could be transformed a half-dozen times by then, relegating this assessment to wherever null and void political opinions go when they die. However, one thing is certain: if Democrats continue to lag behind in cultivating compelling young candidates, they will quickly lose their long-held claim to being the party of youth—a claim that, looking at the consequences, they may never have deserved.