American Culture

Is Obama the new JFK?

Something big happened a few nights ago in Iowa. Barack Obama began the evening as one of the top two contenders for the Democratic nomination and by the time people went to bed he was John F. Kennedy.

This might sound like hyperbole – and to be sure, the race is far from won – but if the results we saw in the Hawkeye State last Thursday are replicated in New Hampshire and beyond, then what we are seeing may be a defining shift in American politics and culture. The key factor is the emergence of the 75-100 million strong Millennial Generation as a political force. Let’s look at some of the evidence.

The Young Voter PAC’s roundup provides ample data for consideration.

The youth [ages 18-29] turnout rate tripled in Iowa.

The youth turnout rate rose to 13% in 2008 compared to 4% in 2004 and 3% in 2000.

Out of all of Barack Obama’s support in Iowa, 57% came from young voters (CNN, MSNBC, FOX).

60% of the caucus participants were first time caucus goers and of those 39% of them went for Obama.

22% of the Democratic caucus goers were young people, up from 17% in 2004.

A total of 65,230 young people were caucus-goers in 2008. 52,580 caucused with Democrats and only 12,650 turned out for Republicans. That means of the young people that turned out, 80% were for Democrats!

The totals for both parties are 239,000 Democrats (compared to 125,000 in 2004) and 115,000 Republicans. Emphasis added.)

For context, note first that “Democrats of all ages outnumbered Republicans 2 to 1 and young Democrats outnumbered young Republicans 4 to 1,” and this is in a state that George Bush carried in 2004. Then understand that Obama punked all comers in a state that’s around 95% white. Before all the colleges started up again.

Clearly Obama’s message of “change” is finding fertile ground. Ignore, for the moment, that his vision of change is perhaps stronger than his record of actually pursuing it. Never mind that he’s been roundly criticized for being weak on policy. Forget the criticism that he’s all charisma and no substance. Even if these things are true, they don’t matter. This is America, and it’s been a long time since we decided elections based on anything like an informed study of the real issues.

Also, let’s avoid the temptation to argue that Obama is no John F. Kennedy. The facts of his administration suggests that JFK wasn’t JFK, either. He escalated our involvement in Vietnam. He sold out the US-backed exiles sent to invade the Bay of Pigs. And during the Cuban Missile Crisis he probably came closer than any leader in our history to getting us into a nuclear war. We tend to remember Kennedy in the way we always seem to remember charismatic figures who die tragically – which is to say, we don’t always go directly to the nuts and bolts of the person’s career.

What Kennedy did accomplish was to give a booming generation of young people hope. John, and later his younger brother Bobby, established a vision of greatness through service that compelled the nation’s youth in a way that nothing quite had before or has since. Like Kennedy’s Baby Boom adherents, today’s Millennial voters (most of who are the children of Boomers) are part of a huge generation. Like the Boomers they’re hopeful. They’re convinced they can make a difference (a dramatic contrast to the Gen Xers in between the two, who learned way too many lessons about hope from what the Boomers became after Bobby’s death). And they may, like the Boomers, have found a symbol they can invest in.

The more we understand about the character of the Millennials, the more sense this all makes. For instance:

  • Millennials believe they can change the world. They’re far more hopeful and confident than Xers, for example.
  • In a Pew study released in January called “A Portrait of Generation Next” 56 percent of 18-25 year olds say that they “feel empowered to bring about social change,” an increase of eight percentage points over the Gen Xers who were asked the same question in 1990.

    They’re willing to roll up their sleevs and get their hands dirty on behalf of causes they care about, too, with volunteerism levels estimated at over 50%.

  • Millennials, perhaps more than any other generational cycle, are feelers. They’re not instinctively critical thinkers and those responsible for their upbringing (parents and educational administrators, especially) have done all they can to make sure it stays that way.
  • Millennials are strong followers. They think in the collective. Since they were raised in packs they’re accustomed to acting in groups. They’re also extremely conventional – the most conventional of Howe and Strauss’ four generational cycles – and as such react positively to sanctioned authority. With this in mind, read Jesse Wendel’s thoughtful examination of Obama and “declarative speech.” Of the major candidates, Obama is arguably the one who’s tapping the Millennial “follow reflex” in ways his competitors haven’t (or can’t).
  • Millennials respond to those who cater to them. In fact, they demand it. Again, this is an artifact of their upbringing. It has its downside, obviously, but the relevant point here is that the Democratic campaigns have been reaching out to young voters on their terms in ways that the GOP hasn’t, and Obama has done an especially good job of speaking to this important segment.
  • Millennials are the most diverse generation in history. According to demographer Neil Howe, who along with Bill Strauss has written the most comprehensive and important studies of the Millennials to date:

    Over 40 percent are nonwhite or Latino; at least 20 percent have one immigrant parent. For earlier generations, ethnic diversity was mainly about African American and Latino populations. In this generation, the ethnic diversity includes a mixture of people from all over the world: Asia, Eastern Europe, Africa, and so on.

    Does that general description remind you of any particular candidate?

  • The Millennials are strongly pro-social, something that’s going to become more significant when the racist dirty tricks get started in earnest. When you look at what the Mills believe it becomes apparent that – as we saw in Iowa – they’re far more progressive. They don’t like discrimination against gays and they’re likely to recognize, at a profoundly emotional level, the ugly racism in “Barack HUSSEIN Obama.” “Electability” questions will bounce right off them. Most of these codespeak attacks are going to find that Mills are damned tough to crack because they have a faith in their own correctness that’s simply unshakable. Ask their teachers.

In other words, Barack Obama is their hope for a better world personified. He looks like their reality, he sounds like their self-certainty, and his flaws are evident only to the thinker, making them invisible to the emotional doer.

The coming weeks may prove this entire thesis wrong, but for the moment there’s good reason for concern in the Clinton and Edwards camps. And even better reason for out-and-out terror on the GOP side of the campaign.

John F. Kennedy was terribly flawed, but his legacy of hope drives Baby Boomers to tears even today. Barack Obama is showing signs of being the same thing to the children of those Boomers, and if so Iowa may have been the first little quiver in a massive political earthquake building just beneath the surface.

36 replies »

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  2. The medium being the message I would really like to know how much influence the internet has on this new voting block. Mainstream media seems to disregard this influence yet I know few people that do not get their news and other information from this source. Television is to information dispersal what the kerosene lamp was to lighting, I think we owe much of this rebirth in political activism to our (thus far) free internet.

  3. Instead of the Internet generally, I’d look hard at social media. This is a viral generation and the sources that count the most are peer sources.

  4. I’m sorry but your report is a little too “informed” for me, there’s to much thought; I’m going to go watch Tila Tequila.

  5. I was born at that cusp between Gen X and the Millennials. I’m not as nihilistic as Gen X. I’m not as chained to my parents or technology as the Millennials. An interesting point for the Millennials of voting age is that their memories are entirely of either a Bush or a Clinton whitehouse. I remember Reagan, but, I wasn’t terribly politically aware at that age. Considering how badly the Millennials want to see change, Hillary will have a very hard time selling the idea that she’s really anything different. I suspect some of the other older candidates will have the same problem.

  6. I think Obama reminds me more of Robert Kennedy than Jack……… they both made the hair stand up on the back of my neck when they spoke. Our country badly needs inspiration to help us face the tough times ahead.

  7. I always liked Barack as a speaker, he does give hope, but then again if you listen to Huckster he does as well. I think the main reason people voted was for change, the people that couldn’t vote last time around, or were too lazy to vote are fed up. However I also believe that another HUGE factor is the “ I did it so, I can say I did it” vote. Can you imagine in 20 years when/if Barack gets elected and you voted for the white Republican! You’d look like an asshole. That’s like saying you didn’t believe in the work Mother Theresa, Gandhi, or MLK did. Wouldn’t you want to vote for the first black president?

    That being said I also believe that the generational differences are starting to appear. I’m not sure if I’m on the tail end of Gen x or what, but I’ve always enjoyed the process, and I believe most people younger then 30 are starting to as well. I personally believe in 90% of Ron Pauls ideas, however I also believe that the USA needs a major PR overhaul. I think deep down inside most Americans do as well. Lets face it, I’d like to travel without people thinking were all assholes. If Barack gets the presidency it would be a major boost to our image, based on HIS image alone. Young, charismatic, worldly, and most importantly he can speak in full sentences. It’s weird the next president has one of the hardest tasks ever, yet one of the easiest. He’s the “it can’t get any worse president” Behind scenes Iraq is a mess, yet if he makes some withdrawals and redeploys aid and troops to Afghanistan it’s almost impossible to look bad.

    I would like to hear some of his fiscal policies though. Unfortunately the media narrows the scope of topics. I’m sort of a big fan of the whole “why the fuck is the cost of living going up, yet the value of the dollar shrinking” thing, call me crazy.

    On H-Dog. Did anyone really think she will win? Leave it to me to point out the obvious. Hillary looks like a bitch! Plain and simple, she has Martha Stewart syndrome. She may be sweet as pie, but she looks like the office bitch. You know that chick who narks on the guys when they go out for a liquid lunch for his birthday, or touts all the hard work she’s done even though she’s done less then everyone else. She turns off so many people. I think when all is said and done she will be relinquished as a Ted Kennedy type player in the party. I’m not counting her out, she can still finagle superdeligates or what ever the Democratic Primary uses to decide their nominee. It’s so complicated that it makes me think of 2000 all over again.

    Also you mentioned winter break, and I want to reiterate the importance the early Caucus had on college students. I also wonder why presidential voting days are not either a mandatory national holiday. Take away Columbus Day, no one celebrates that asshole. I’d make voting day a drinking holiday. What about a 3 day event so more people get a chance to vote. Maybe a gag order on traditional media about results until the last day, or maybe not. Just some thoughts.

    That being said, I’m still holding out hope for a revival of the Bull Moose Party!

  8. I’ve got some errands to run, so more later – but Obama isn’t just leading a mass of hyperwired, touchy-feely Millennials to the voting booths. He is the uber-Xer: the kind social scientists oversimplify and opponents underestimate. He is the best of my “small generation.”

  9. This is a viral generation and the sources that count the most are peer sources.

    Damn, that scares the hell out of me, especially when it comes down to imparting information. Peer sources, especially at the age of most of the Millennials, are some of the least knowledgeable sources there are about things like politics, engineering, the sciences, etc.

    Thankfully, generalizations are just that – general. Individuals will tend to range all over the map.

  10. Euph: Oh, absolutely. He’s an Xer who has figured out how to move the Mills. There’s more than a little irony in this.

    Brian: As I say, this isn’t about facts or being right. It’s about an emotional conviction that he stands for “change.” And yeah, the degree of credibility this gen assigns to peer review is nothing short of frightening – I saw one report, looking at how they make decisions on purchases, I think, and it found peer opinion to be 6 times more credible with Mills than expert reviews.

    Lou: Maybe we should put some quotes around “endorse,” huh?

  11. “Dr. Slammy,”

    if you like. I’m “rich” so
    I live my whole “life” in quotes


  12. It doesn’t “sound like hyperbole” to me. It sounds like unimaginative, echo chamber, herd mentality punditry.

    Such comparisons are meaningless.

    Your discussion of generalized characteristics of “Millennials” is useful and informative. Comparisons to historic political leaders adds nothing to the discussion.

  13. Chris: You’re right. I mean, I haven’t been able to log onto the Internet for weeks without running across all kinds of analyses noting the Obama-Kennedy comparison as it pertains to the unique character of the Millennial generation. And ask anybody – I’m nothing if not a herd pundit. You’re also right about the meaninglessness of these comparisons, because there’s really nothing we can learn from history.

    Thanks for calling me on it.

  14. Darrell: No doubt that’s how Hillary is viewed by some, but you’re mostly describing a segment of the public that looks at a corporatist wet dream like her and concludes that she’s a “communist” – in other words, that’s not what you’d call the thinking citizen’s take.

    The dislike and mistrust of her goes a LOT deeper and you’ll find a lot of Dems who’d have a hard time picking between her and Giuliani….

  15. Well, if he is elected let us hope and pray he doesn’t make the same mistakes Kennedy did. I won’t vote for him. I guess I will stay home on election day but I won’t be watching her Highness, Oprah.

  16. Dr. Slammy,

    Thanks for your kind response. I take you at your word that you are not a herd pundit.

    Obviously there is much to be learned from history. Nice bit of subtle sarcasm.

    The fact remains Obama is not Kennedy and, so far as I know, as never suggested that he is the inheritor of the Kennedy mantle.

    Most of the Obama/Kennedy comparisons have been put forth as an easily knocked down straw man.


  17. The fact remains Obama is not Kennedy…

    I’m sorry. It didn’t occur to me that someone might take this literally.

    …never suggested that he is the inheritor of the Kennedy mantle.

    And I never suggested that there was a mantle to inherit. I merely noted that there were some important parallels.

    Most of the Obama/Kennedy comparisons have been put forth as an easily knocked down straw man.

    Do you know what the term “straw man” means?

    In any case, instead of waffling generally about how easy it is to dismiss the comparison, it would be more interesting if you were to actually do so. A monkey can sit around and harrumph that it’s easy to fly to the moon but that doesn’t make it fact.

    And if you do attempt to address the issue, please, stick to the context and argument as set forth. I’m aware that there are many ways in which the two aren’t at all alike, and am more concerned with their relationships to the Boom and Millennial generations specifically.

  18. Actually, aside from Obama wanting to punish success and take more taxes from me, I find him to be the best candidate on the Democratic side. At least he’s not shrill or a whiner, like most of the other candidates I wouldn’t strenously object if he won the election…he might become a voice for the majority like Reagan was. As for the tax issues, if a Democrat is elected and the tax rates rise, I’ll book all of my trades offshore, pay myself a salary, and just pay the AMT.

    Ladbrokes(The huge betting house in England) has Obama as 2:1 to win the presidency, whereas Hillary has slipped to 3.75:1(this is the first time she’s been the underdog with the smart money). The Republican with the best chance, McCain is going for 7:1 and Guiliani is 8:1.


  19. I think Barak Obama will be the Democratic nominee and I think he will win the general election by a landslide. Here are some reasons:
    1. He has and is building the most incredible grass roots organization we have seen since Franklin Roosevelt. This means lots of people who never vote and who have never voted will swell his margin of victory.
    2. He will win over marginal districts all over the US by bringing large majorities from blacks, hispanics, young people, and single women. This will not only ensure his win but it will bring in a very liberal congress. Dems could even win a filibuster proof Senate. This is new because the liberals, environmentalists, and standard Democrats will also be there, but did not have enough to win in the past. The most important statistice from Iowa was not the margin of his victory, but the doubling of Democratic turnout. The new voters were all first time voters. This will be huge in the general election.
    3. Being a black man is huge advantage for three reasons: 1. The Rupublican slime maching will have to be very, very careful or they risk a “macaca” backlash. After all, they cannot tell people in South Carolina that he fathered a black child – Whoops! he has fathered two! 2. Many people feel the biggest problem with their government is that it does not care about them. They see government as being run by rich white guys and corporations. With Obama, they feel that he understands people like them because they assume he must have had to deal with some of the same problems they have. 3. There is a undercurrent of guilt in Americans who feel that blacks have gotten a raw deal in America. And they feel that voting for Barak will absolve some of that guilt. Especially since he is so non-threatening. He fits into the Tiger Woods, Oprah Winfrey, Williams sisters mold. We feel good rooting for them.

    Finally Barak is new type of leader. Every other candidate – Republican and Democrat follows the leader mold of “Father knows best.” They lead from the top down. Their style is the pyamid with them at the pinnacle. But Obama is a leader whose style is “Come. Let us reason together.” This style could be diagrammed as wheel. Obama is the hub but others form the spokes and rim and gain support from the whole. What this means is that when he is president, he will be able to build support for change from a large base of popular support. Look where he got his money – millions of small donations. This critical mass of popular support will sweep a lot before it.

    I have spent months trying to decide whom to support, but I now see Barak Obama as not only the right candidate to save the Democratic party, but the right man to reform America. Wouldn’t it be nice to feel pround to be an American again?

  20. I like it, the liberals / progressives get their candidate on the Democrat side, and the religious right get their candidate on the Republican side. Neither side can claim they aren’t being represented by precisely the perfect person for them.

    Oh, and Jeff, one of the other betting agencies in the UK has already started paying out. On Obama.

  21. I have a dumb question for ya, would you vote for a guy who’s name is Hussein for a president of USA?

  22. …well he is the sexiest candidate on offer so women are coming out in force it would seem.

  23. Obama is very inspirational, but sometimes rhetoric is just that; he is lacking in any foreign policy experience; the next president will have to deal with the world governments as well as domestic problems at home; at some point we need to know who his advisors will be in foreign policy. JFK chose some of the very brightest people in the country (well, McNamara turned out not to be such a great choice for sure.) It is best not to raise your hopes too high. The next president will probably be a one-term president.

  24. Talking about how he will deal with foreign policy, he has been actively working with the Kenyan leaders to create peace between their two rival tribes – on the day of the caucus!

    On January 3, the day of the caucuses, he had a conversation with Bishop Desmond Tutu, who had flown to Nairobi to see if he could begin negotiations with the factions. In the days since his Iowa victory, Obama has had near-daily conversations with the U.S. Ambassador in Kenya or with opposition leader Raila Odinga. As of late this afternoon, before his rally in Rochester, N.H., Obama was trying to reach Kenyan President Kibaki.

    This speaks a lot toward how he works under stress, handles diplomacy and how he sets his priorities.

  25. The Millennial generation is in full force right now. Miore than ever are companies, business’ and empolyers reaching out to the most connected and networked generation in existence. I work with Cambria Suites and they too are reaching out in new ways with their website . You should check it out, it really gives insight into the new direction to head when connecting with millennials . I reccomend checking out room 224 at the website for a good laugh!

  26. Darrell, January 7, 2008 at 2:10 pm :
    I always liked Barack as a speaker, he does give hope, but then again if you listen to Huckster he does as well

    Hey Darrell, do YOU have a blog?

  27. What is so great about Obama? ” at least that’s what i thought at one time. ” Untill one night when I heard him speak “. There he was I saw it” Jfk the Second ” lol ” spazz”

  28. Millenials are not the children of Baby Boomers…GenXers are. Baby Boomers are in their sixties, which means they would have had their Millenial kids in their forties. Get your math right. GenXers are the children of Baby Boomers. I’m 25, a millenial (by all definitions, I suppose), and my mother was born in ’59…too young to be a Baby Boomer.

  29. You are dramatically uninformed. Sure, some Xers have early Boomer parents – these things do overlap. But the Boom was 1943-1960 and X was 1961 to 1980. The front edge of the Boom is around 65 right now but the tail end isn’t even 50 yet.

    Do the math. And maybe read some of the experts.