Young people are turning out in droves for Occupy Wall Street -- and its subsidiary protests in cities across the country -- because they're fed up with capitalism. Who they should be fed up with is President Obama.
Sixty-six percent of voters under age 30 supported Obama in the 2008 presidential election. In theory, those votes were based on Obama's promise to restore America to a prosperous nation, though celebrity appeal played a major role, too. Three years later, how's that working for recent college graduates in the Millennial generation?
Not well. First on the list of disappointments is the gulf between Obama's promises and his conduct in office. As a senator, our soon-to-be 44th president voted for the original corporate bailout bill. Then, as chief executive, he crafted and pushed through his own version of stimulus in 2009. It was a colossal failure. Despite rhetoric to the contrary, the president has an affinity for picking winners and losers in the private sector.
Next is the hemorrhaging job market. The unemployment rate was 7.6 percent when Obama took office in January 2009. Now it's 9.1 percent. Employment statistics are far worse for Generation Y. Many college graduates can't -- or won't -- find a job.
Future prospects for economic security are dim. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that government debt could exceed 100 percent of Gross Domestic Product by 2021 and could approach 190 percent of GDP by 2035 -- about the time that millions of Millennials reach their prime earning years. The chief culprit is social spending. Young people are swiftly becoming the debt-paying generation.
Despite those sobering realities, Obama's highest approval ratings are among members of Generation Y -- only upstaged by minorities and postgraduates. The latest Gallup tracking poll shows that young adults aged 18 to 29 give Obama an approval rating of 48 percent, compared to a rating of 41 percent in the general population.
That disconnect between young peoples' economic doldrums and the president's performance in office is a key subplot of the Occupy Wall Street narrative. Rather than see government policy as the reason for the financial meltdown and insipid economic growth, young people are taking to the streets to protest the capitalist system that provides their iPods and designer jeans.
It's a positive development for the Obama administration. Projecting the blame for financial malaise on Wall Street also deflects the blame from the governmental policies that served as the foundation for the problem in the first place. Democrats want the focus on Wall Street -- and the alleged evils of free-market capitalism -- not Obama's record in office.
The unfortunate part is that conservatives share at least one of Occupy Wall Street's aims -- to end corporate bailouts. That could be a starting point for a reasonable discussion with Millennials on economic realities. But who are we kidding? The similarities end there. Occupiers despise corporate bailouts, but they relish individual bailouts. Make life fair, they say: Not just equality of opportunity, but equality of outcome.
That perspective appeals to Millennials sense of how life should be. Researchers have catalogued that Generation Y tends to expect a lot out of life without putting much in. In many cases, the safety net of moving back home with parents constitutes a mini bailout. The Occupy Wall Street mentality fits cozily with that.
It remains to be seen how much staying power the Occupy movement will have, and whether that will translate into momentum for Obama. Numbers gathered by former Clinton pollster Douglas Schoen don't give the president a reason to smile. "An overwhelming majority of demonstrators supported Barack Obama in 2008," Schoen wrote in the Wall Street Journal. "Now 51% disapprove of the president while 44% approve, and only 48% say they will vote to re-elect him in 2012, while at least a quarter won't."
Despite continuing to support him overall, young voters' fervor for Obama from 2008 has faded. Young voter turnout dropped 60 percent in 2010 compared to two years earlier. Even factoring in the mid-term nature of the election, that's a tough hill to scale. The Obama campaign will be hard pressed to reinvigorate young voters in 2012, even if the Occupy movement continues to swell in number.
In the interim, Generation Y needs to ask a basic question: Why still support Obama?
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