Conservative activist Jason Mattera calls them “Obama zombies.” Vice President Joe Biden calls them “the most incredible group of Americans we have ever, ever, ever produced.”
They call themselves “unemployed,” “disenchanted,” and “frustrated.”
In 2008, President Obama captured 66 percent of voters under 30, compared with only 54 percent for Kerry in 2004.
But in 2012, the administration is finding this cohort a tougher sell. The Associated Press reports that “about 1.5 million, or 53.6 percent, of bachelor’s degree-holders under the age of 25 last year were jobless or underemployed, the highest share in 11 years.” Meanwhile, a survey by Twentysomething, Inc., found that 85 percent of college seniors in 2012 planned to move back into their parents’ homes after graduation — a trend reflected in a December 2011 survey by the Pew Research Center that found that 53 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds are living, or have lived, with their parents during the last few years.
All of that may explain the Gallup tracking poll’s showing that only 51 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds approved of Obama in July 2012, a 19-point drop from 2009.
This time around, the administration is no less dependent on young voters, but it will have to court them actively.
According to Generation Opportunity (GO), a nonprofit, nonpartisan educational organization that works with 18- to 29-year-olds, the president and vice president, their wives, and officials from 30 different administration departments and agencies have visited high schools and colleges on taxpayer-funded trips between March 2011 and May 2012. GO documents show 240 separate trips in that 15-month period, in addition to more than 60 commencement addresses. That means an administration official visited some campus every 48 hours during that period. And Generation Opportunity did not review trips prior to March 2011, before which Obama officials may well have been making just as many visits. Young America’s Foundation reports that the president himself has spoken on a high-school or college campus once every twelve days during his presidency.
Paul Conway, president of GO, has served under four presidents; in the Bush administration, he was chief of staff for labor secretary Elaine Chao, and chief of staff for the Office of Personnel Management. In a conversation with NRO, Conway pointed out that the Obama campaign’s current allotment of resources — both personnel and money — being “aimed at a target demographic” is “unprecedented.” It is, he said, “much larger than anything we participated in in previous administrations.”
The most frequent campus visitor is Obama himself, who made 40 trips during the 15 months from March 2011 to May 2012. Department of Education staff made more visits, 49, but they are distributed among several members, including secretary of education Arne Duncan, undersecretary Martha Kanter, and a host of other department officials, from “teaching ambassador fellows” to policy advisers. Joe Biden and Jill Biden have each made more than a dozen campus visits, and the Departments of Energy, Agriculture, and Homeland Security, have each had officials on a campus about once a month during the 15-month period. When commencement speeches are added, administration officials are on campus at the rate of at least one every 36 hours, and Labor, Transportation, and Health and Human Services are included among those departments that have sponsored more than a dozen campus visits.
There is no piece of legislation, educational initiative, or advocacy issue that justifies such extensive attention to high schools and colleges. Furthermore, a third of the visits from administration officials have been to schools in swing states, where many “official” visits have turned into full-throated campaign stops.
When the president made an “official” (i.e., in his capacity as president) visit to the University of Colorado at Boulder in April, CBS Denver titled its coverage “Obama Hits Campaign Stride on Colorado Visit.” At the University of Albany two weeks later, Obama was busy scolding his political opponents and touting his own record:
Just about every time we put these policies up for a vote, the Republicans in Congress got together and they said no. And it’s worth noting, by the way — this is just a little aside — after there was a recession under Ronald Reagan, government employment went way up. . . . The only time government employment has gone down during a recession has been under me.
But that event, which RNC chairman Reince Priebus said was “of course” a campaign function, was funded by taxpayers.
The debate over “official” versus “political” events causes perennial tension between presidential administrations and political opponents. Democrats accused George W. Bush’s administration of violating official travel rules. In October 2006, in an article titled “Is Bush’s Cabinet Flying Too-Friendly Skies?,” Time magazine accused the administration of sending “Bush cabinet secretaries and top agency officials . . . on cushier and costlier private aircraft at least 125 times to over 300 locations” between 2001 and 2006. Representative Henry Waxman, then the senior Democrat on the House Government Reform Committee, claimed the administration had “routinely flaunted” official travel rules, at a taxpayer cost of $1.5 million.
But Conway does not buy the equivalence. The Obama administration’s travel is not aimed at advocating specific legislation (half of the Bush amount was accrued in efforts at touting No Child Left Behind); it involves a massive number of officials, from cabinet secretaries to sub-agency heads; it targets a specific demographic; it disproportionately favors swing states; and the targeted travel has been abnormally high in a non-election year.