Why Obama is No Longer Cool on Campus

The Atlantic Wire carries a story about a recent poll by the National Journal showing that Obama’s popularity ratings have returned to 2008 levels (likely because of the assassination of Osama bin Laden) but that his numbers have actually declined among young people (ages 18 to 29), by nearly ten percentage points (from 66% to 56%). The Wire notes a New York Times story which attempts to explain the curious decline via anecdotes from Oberlin College:

Four undergrad editors at The Oberlin Review signed an essay lamenting that most students had opted out of agitating, unlike alums who protested slavery and the Vietnam war. A symposium last month called “Oberlin-based Perspectives on the Obama Presidency” noted that students don’t think Obama’s cool anymore—all his cute little quirks have become grating, a polisci professor explained, and the real Obama can’t live up to their idea of him. Students aren’t even impressed that Osama bin Laden was killed, protesting that the world’s most wanted terrorist was unarmed when he was shot. Vinocur writes that although disaffection at Oberlin is “a speck of confetti in a storm of pre-2012 election indicators in America… it’s also a fact that Mr. Obama’s most diligent canvassers in 2008 often came from the country’s campuses.” Brownstein, too, notes that the lack of youth enthusiasm is “worrisome” and could be related to young people’s higher unemployment rates.

Obama’s diminished popularity among the young could be caused by any number of factors, such as the high unemployment rate. And surely there are some on campuses like Oberlin who have decided that Obama is simply not left-wing enough. But is the fading youth commitment to Obama just because of Obama, or because of broader cultural trends? In an article this past spring in The Undercurrent, we offered an additional explanation for the general decline in idealism on the left:

Perhaps Democrats were so easily demoralized because their commitment to the President’s ideals was never very serious to begin with…
Many Americans, then, are jaded about the very idea of political ideology. They view ideology as ‘toxic’ or, if they’re like Stewart or Colbert, downright laughable. They regard it as toxic because they believe it encourages dogmatism, ‘inflexibility’, and ‘divisiveness’…

To live life seriously, we need ideas, and to understand our ideas we need ideology. Ideology integrates our ideas in a way that helps us see what it means to take them seriously—the essence of idealism. As Americans lament ideology, they undermine their capacity for idealism and allow a discouraged cynicism to take its place.

For more on how the decline in college idealism reflects today’s wider cultural cynicism, read the rest of my piece.

Creative Commons-licensed picture from Flickr user jonathan mcintosh

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Valery Publius is the pen name of a teacher living in the American South.