The Missing Generation of Obama-Inspired Politicians

The 2008 Obama presidential campaign, you'll no doubt remember, was a marvel of social engagement, particularly among young people. They got involved in politics, they saw the potential for change, they sent emails and posted to Facebook and knocked on doors. But as Jason Horowitz reports in The New York Times, not too many of them decided to run for office. I'll solve that mystery in a moment, but here's an excerpt:

But if Mr. Lesser, who is on leave from Harvard Law School to run for office, is the face of the promised Obama political generation, he is also one of its few participants. For all the talk about the movement that elected Mr. Obama, the more notable movement of Obama supporters has been away from politics. It appears that few of the young people who voted for him, and even fewer Obama campaign and administration operatives, have decided to run for office. Far more have joined the high-paid consultant ranks.

Unlike John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan, who inspired virtual legislatures of politicians and became generational touchstones, Mr. Obama has so far had little such influence. That is all the more remarkable considering he came to office tapping into spirit of volunteerism and community service that pollsters say is widespread and intense among young people. Mr. Obama has come to represent that spirit, but he has failed, pollsters say, to transform it into meaningful engagement in the political process.

There are a bunch of empirical claims here that may be questionable. Are there actually fewer young people running for office six years after Barack Obama got elected than there were in 1966 or 1986? Perhaps, but I don't know that anyone has determined that for sure. And as for more of Obama staffers going into consulting than running for office, that always happens. You could without question say the same thing about every president since political consulting became an industry. Running for office is something very few people ever do, and for people who are working in politics and want to keep working in politics, the move from staffer to consultant is a natural career progression without huge risks.

More importantly, running for office is just one tiny part of "meaningful engagement in the political process." What other things have all those former Obama volunteers been doing? The answer may be that they've actually been doing quite a bit.

But if mounting a congressional campaign is the one thing they haven't been doing, it would be hard to blame them (and they may be running for other offices, but national reporters haven't noticed). The last five years haven't exactly made being a member of Congress look like the kind of fulfilling endeavor for which you'd make extraordinary life sacrifices. In fact, these days Congress looks like the last place from which important change is going to come. So if you're an idealistic young person and the prospect of spending the next few years voting against the 50th and 60th and 70th Republican bill to repeal the Affordable Care Act doesn't stir you to the depths of your soul, it's hard to say that's Barack Obama's failure.

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