Young black voters came out for Obama, but may not return

During last year’s presidential campaign, the second-most talked about aspect of Barack Obama’s historic candidacy was the fervor with which he was widely embraced among young people. His popularity with Generation Y, and particularly voters ages 18-24, was at least as attributable to the tech-savvy infrastructure of his campaign and his inclusive rhetoric on the stump as any specific issue or signature campaign promise. Six months into his presidency and no longer enjoying the public complacence of the honeymoon phase, there is little indication that young people’s surge of interest in the political process will be a lasting consequence of President Obama’s electoral success.

Last week, the Census Bureau reported an 8 percent increase in turnout among black voters ages 18-24, as compared to the 2004 election. The same release indicated that, while voting did tend to increase with age, the youngest voters registered the only statistically significant increase in turnout.

As a person with a lifelong interest in politics who was eligible to vote for president for the first time this past November, I can recognize the appeal of the opportunity to get one’s political feet wet under such exciting and historically singular circumstances. But I can’t say, that, were the contest between two less alluring candidates, it would have made a profound difference in my enthusiasm to exercise my right to vote. Being a politically aware young black man, I was proud to participate in an election that featured a pioneering black candidate, but it was hardly the primary influence for my decision to do so. For those who found the spectacle of the election an especially compelling motivation, it seems to follow that it alone was not a catalyst of enduring effect.

On a purely anecdotal level, I’ve certainly noticed that the political theatre of the campaign trail made much more appealing beer pong table fodder than the specifics of the healthcare overhaul. Generally speaking, when the president’s legislative endeavors are mentioned in a social circle of people my age, the minimal chatter typically indicates what is at best a cursory understanding of the issues and usually concludes with a vague expression of assurance that “Obama’s got it covered.” Without the sensationalism and celebrity element that characterized the pursuit of the White House, the actual goings on within it don’t seem to interest many of my peers that weren’t concerned with politics prior to the historic election.

The duties of office have forced the transition from glittering platitudes to wonkish and often polarizing policy decisions, so it’s no surprise that Obama the candidate’s support appeared sturdier than that of Obama the president. With young people in particular, the transition’s effects are slightly more complex. It was easy to grasp the candidate’s momentum and symbolism last fall while Obama benefited from rival John McCain’s function as a foil, but without the glamour of televised debates and virtually omnipresent dueling endorsement ads, Gen Y-ers are especially prone to the kind of dismissal of the Obama phenomenon they previously reserved for hit radio singles that overstayed their welcome at the top of the charts.

Unless that indifference develops into outright disdain, the lull in vigilance hurts us far more than it hurts the president. The Obama campaign’s willingness to engage my generation at all surely helped the candidate transcend his competition. But the fact that we appreciably contributed to his victory has the potential to afford us leverage not only in the shaping of his policy, but also to inspire future White House hopefuls looking to capitalize on President Obama’s blueprint. However, should Generation Y fail to remain attentive, responsive, and — perhaps most importantly — critical of the current administration, we will reveal ourselves as a voting bloc easily duped by social networking sites and soaring rhetoric with no expectation of reciprocal accountability for substantive results.

Still, the original zeal that propelled the Obama bandwagon can become a solid foundation for a mutually advantageous political alliance between the president and the presently maturing generation. There is plenty of room for improvement, but with three and half years left in just his first term, there is also plenty of time.