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Among young voters, Obama confronts a drop in enthusiasm

COLUMBUS, Ohio ó They were freshmen then, caught up in the excitement on the Ohio State University campus surging behind Barack Obama, a presidential candidate they saw as young, inspiring and visionary. Almost four years later, they’re seniors caught in the grim realities of the economy ó on the hunt for jobs but accepting internships and temporary positions, or applying to graduate school to wait for employment to bounce back.|By Christi Parsons, Tribune Washington Bureau

COLUMBUS, Ohio ó They were freshmen then, caught up in the excitement on the Ohio State University campus surging behind Barack Obama, a presidential candidate they saw as young, inspiring and visionary.

Almost four years later, they’re seniors caught in the grim realities of the economy ó on the hunt for jobs but accepting internships and temporary positions, or applying to graduate school to wait for employment to bounce back.

President Obama had a number of reasons for visiting here Tuesday, making Columbus the second stop on his tour to push his $447 billion jobs bill: Ohio is a crucial swing state, House Speaker John Boehner’s district is nearby and several aspects of Obama’s jobs plan fit well with the region’s needs.

But by virtue of the massive Ohio State campus, this is also one of the country’s largest college towns and a place where Obama fever burned intensely three years ago. If he is to reverse his slide in the polls and again carry states like Ohio for his re-election, Obama needs to revive at least some of that energy.

“He needs to replicate 2008, with high turnout among minorities and the young,” said Paul Beck, a political scientist at Ohio State. “Young voters are not nearly as enthused as in 2008, and they may not be by election time.”

Interviews show he has a ways to go with Ohio’s young voters, as they view politics through a different lens now. Some are less interested, others are considering the field of Republican candidates. Some have kept the faith in Obama and want to volunteer for him ó when their job-hunting schedules will allow.

“I’m not going to go out and advocate for anything,” said Joshua Hayes, a senior in civil engineering who recalled that he was caught up in the Obama fervor as a freshman. “I have my own stuff going on,” he added, ticking off a long weekly to-do list that includes going to class, studying and working at Bed, Bath and Beyond to help pay the bills.

The U.S. unemployment rate stood at 7.8 percent when Obama took office, but in Ohio it was 8.6 percent ó one of the highest rates in the country. National unemployment has since climbed to 9.1 percent, while Ohio’s rate stands at 9 percent ó an improvement from fall 2009, when its rate peaked at 10.6 percent.

But even if the employment picture has improved, that doesn’t mean it’s good.

“Everyone’s settling,” said Brooke Wojdynski, a senior in non-profit studies and political science. “I don’t want to settle. I need a job I want, not just something that’s available.”

Some students defend Obama, directing their anger at a political dynamic they think has thwarted him. But there has been a notable drop in enthusiasm, a major concern for the White House heading into the 2012 campaign, especially in key states such as Ohio, which Obama carried in 2008. The excitement of being a first-time voter devoted to a rising star’s campaign has subsided, replaced by the practical need to get by.

A Washington Post poll earlier this month reported that, for the first time, fewer than half of Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 gave Obama positive marks. Young voters overwhelmingly voted for Obama in 2008, but just 47 percent of voters under the age of 30 approved of his job performance.

Obama’s advisers believe this is not surprising for a president in the third year of his term in a difficult economy ó and at a time when a new field of Republican presidential hopefuls is generating excitement among many voters.

Voters have not yet come to know the Republican candidates, and Obama will look better in the ultimate comparison shopping, White House officials say.

Following a playbook outlined by many economists, Obama is pushing for short-term spending to boost hiring, and long-term deficit reductions to bring spending in line. But he is proposing to raise taxes on affluent Americans to pay for his plan, and Republicans have steadfastly refused.

Obama’s plan includes payroll tax cuts for employers and workers, tax credits for companies that hire additional workers, veterans or the “long-term unemployed,” $30 billion to modernize roughly 35,000 public schools and some community colleges, and $50 billion to rebuild transportation infrastructure.

“There are millions of unemployed construction workers looking for work,” Obama told the crowd gathered outside the Fort Hayes Arts and Academic High School. “So my question to Congress is, what on Earth are we waiting for?”
“Pass this bill! Pass this bill!” the crowd chanted in reply.

In Washington, Boehner railed against raising taxes to pay for the plan, saying Obama wants “permanent tax increases … to pay for temporary spending. The House is going to continue to work to create a better environment for economic development and job growth in our country.”

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