If there is one thing that captures the sad decline of Barack Obama’s place in youth culture, it is the changing nature of his treatment on YouTube. Forget about making “Yes We (Still) Can”—Will. I. Am was busy last month making R-rated videos with sultry R & B singer Nicki Minaj. Comedian Sarah Silverman was too preoccupied with tweeting about her menstrual cramps to encourage students to head back to Florida for “The Great Schlep 2.0.” As for Amber Lee Ettinger, aka “Obama Girl,” the viral-video hottie who had a famous crush on Obama back in 2008—well, she was last seen back in March, as a contestant on Shear Genius, a reality show about hair cuts.
No, in the days leading up to last week’s crucial mid-term elections in the U.S., the most prominent sign of the President in social media was a parody rap video called Head of the State, featuring an Obama look-alike called “Baracka Flacka Flames.” In the video, Obama was played by the comedian James Davis, who bragged about how “I brought you change, nigga” while a Michelle look-alike danced behind him, smoking and drinking.
This is what it has come to. In two short years the man who brought genuine hope and a sincere promise of change to Americans, who was portrayed in works of pop art as everyone from Superman to Jesus, has been reduced to a gangsta-rapping cliché, shouting lines of desperate boastfulness as his support crumbles.
Obama’s comedown was inevitable. Not, as many people have suggested, because expectations were too high and his agenda too vague. Rather, he was brought down by the conflict between two immutable forces in American politics: the fantastically fickle and short-sighted youth vote, and a political system designed to prevent precisely the sort of transformative change he promised.
It is important to remember that in 2008 the Democrats didn’t sweep the House, the Senate, and the Presidency by convincing a mass of independents and disillusioned Republicans to come over to their side. What gave Obama his margin of victory was the huge cohort of new voters he was able to attract. This coalition of electoral virgins included blacks, immigrant Asians and Hispanics, and suburban women, but the crucial element was the stampede of young people into the voting ranks. The election of 2008 saw the second largest turnout of youth voters in American history (after 1972, when the voting age was lowered to 18), with over 50 per cent of eligible voters between the ages of 18 and 29 casting a ballot. And two-thirds of them voted for Obama.
Apart from the black community, large chunks of the Obama coalition bailed on him last week, but none did so as pathetically as the young voters. They didn’t just go Republican. Instead, America’s youth, clearly not sold on this democracy thing, reverted to stereotype, and didn’t bother voting at all. Youth turnout was about 20 per cent, a significant decline even from their lazy showing in the 2006 mid-term election.
A number of factors conspired to turn the kids off the man whose image—as captured in the once iconic, now ironic “hope” poster by Shepard Fairey—once hung in dorm rooms across the nation. As soon as he took office, Obama found himself preoccupied with a legacy agenda over which he had little control, in particular the global recession and a growing quagmire in Afghanistan. When it came to pushing his own issues, such as health care, he quickly ran up against the realities of the American political system. Obama himself seemed to realize just how institutionally hamstrung a president is: at a press conference he held the day after the Democrats lost the House of Representatives and hung onto the Senate by the barest of majorities, he said: “‘We were in such a hurry to get things done that we didn’t change how things got done.”
Retail politics everywhere is messy, slow, dirty, and dull. But it is all the more so in the United States, where parties are weak and the entire system is designed to make sure that even a president who controls both houses of Congress is forced into endless horse-trading to get anything done. Progressives in America have a choice: they can either do as Obama suggests, and fundamentally change how things actually work, or they can accept the need for a great deal of patience. The first is never going to happen. And neither, if the kids have any say in the matter, will the second. As one college student put it in a piece about the absent youth vote published in the New York Times, “It’s not the fad anymore to be politically knowledgeable and active.” Or as another student put it in the same Times article, “He made young people feel important, and then he got into office and there was no one talking to us.”
Except Obama’s promise was never about what he would do for people who voted for him, it was about what his supporters could do for themselves. “Yes we can” was not a pledge of political hand-holding, it was a call to collective action.
The members of the “millenial” generation have been accused of being a self-centred and politically apathetic cohort of cool-hunting technology addicts whose central claim to notoriety is that they have the attention span of a puppy dog on Red Bull. In last week’s mid-term elections, they did their level best to prove their critics right.