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Losing a Generation 

Millennials who turned out in 2008 may tune this election out.

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Hunter, a junior at the University of Colorado-Boulder, tells his mother in Virginia that he voted for Barack Obama for president in November 2008. In 2012, he assures her he won’t do that again. Hunter isn’t alone and represents a growing threat to Mr. Obama’s re-election. His story also underlines the important engagement of young people in America’s political system.

Hunter’s attitude reflects the findings of a December 2011 Harvard survey charting the opinions of the Millennial generation (aged 18-29), including Harvard students, about the 2012 presidential elections. It also tested their commitments and thoughts about public service. It doesn’t look good for President Obama — only 25 percent of Harvard students surveyed believe he will be re-elected. Millennials polled 36 percent to 30 percent that Mr. Obama would lose, with 32 percent unsure.

In 2008, CIRCLE (a nonprofit research organization that studies young voters) found that voters between the ages of 18 and 25 preferred Mr. Obama to Sen. McCain by a margin of 66 percent to 30 percent. That was the year the highest number of young people voted (over 50 percent) since 18-year-olds were first allowed to vote in 1972 in a presidential election under the 26th Amendment to the Constitution. This year, by a margin of 44-31 percent, voters under the age of 29 disapprove of Mr. Obama’s performance in office. Not only may Mr. Obama lose his presidency by losing the youth vote, the greater impact is that young voters may altogether sour on politics and government in the future.

Sen. Marco Rubio, a young, freshman U.S. Senator from Florida, who is widely touted as a leading Republican candidate for vice president this year, spoke to a large dinner meeting in Washington, D.C., last month. In his remarks, Rubio thoughtfully explained the voting priorities for the Hispanic community in 2012. Hispanic voters want a strong leader who embraces traditional American values — love of country, encouragement to all Americans to excel, support and respect for others, affirmation of religious faith, a smaller federal government with a return to hard work and self-help. Rubio touched a nerve among both Democrats and Republicans in attendance; Americans want a strong leader again.

All Americans seem to want a president who is better, wiser and more trustworthy than “everyman,” leading the nation to better times. Most Americans seem to “like” President Obama, but they expect more of him, policy-wise. The Harvard survey bears this out. A recent Gallup poll showed Mr. Obama with a 49 percent approval and 46 percent disapproval rating, not great ratings for an incumbent president.

The Harvard survey clearly showed Millennials growing more discouraged over the country’s direction and the inability of those in Washington, D.C., to solve the nation’s problems. Only 12 percent believe the U.S. is headed in the right direction. Millennials also gave Congress low marks.

By a margin of 33 percent to 21 percent, the Harvard survey, disturbingly, found that Millennials believe community volunteerism is a better way to solve important issues facing the country than political engagement, including voting. Voting among Millennials fell off significantly in the 2010 national elections. What that means is that young people, discouraged by government leadership, may collectively believe that voting is a useless act.

In 2012, choosing leaders in America may again be decided by a minority of a minority of those who vote. If it happens, Americans will have again taken for granted the precious right to vote, guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution, and for which generations of Americans have sacrificed.

A recent Harvard seminar for students from 23 universities studying citizenship education touched on ways to make voting easier for Americans. Too many young people fail to appreciate the significance of the precious right to vote, too often believing that the act of voting should be effortless for all Americans.

This election year, our nation seems tired of being no better or worse than other nations. Uninterested in “leading from behind,” especially young Americans are frustrated that unemployment stays near 10 percent, despite the accumulation of a $15 trillion debt, which remains part of a lumpy economy. Gas prices exceeding $4 per gallon is an irritant to most Americans. Polls bear this out.

American voters will justifiably have high expectations of those who aspire to federal office this fall. Today’s political leaders have an obligation greater than getting themselves elected — they must encourage voters to renew their faith in the American system.

Solving America’s problems will be a good starting place.

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