Obama outside the Boom

The first political leader of my generation acts nothing like the rest of us — which might be how he’s gotten where he is
By DAVID S. BERNSTEIN  |  March 5, 2008

080208_obama_main

A year ago, when I saw Obama speak on the Durham campus of the University of New Hampshire, he did not sound the way he does now. Yes, his signs read HOPE and CHANGE, but off the cuff he spoke like a pragmatist, answering questions with references to commissions and Senate floor-vote procedures. It was not what the audience — screaming, sign-waving Millennials and hopeful anti-war Baby Boomers — wanted to hear. They fell silent for long stretches.

Obama is a fast learner. Today, his every sentence, his cadence and rhythm, are perfectly attuned to his audience. He radiates hope, optimism, and idealism. But it did not come naturally to him. And why would it? He is one of my own: the cynical, pessimistic, ironic, pragmatic slackers sometimes known as Gen-X.

Barack Obama, born in 1961, is six years my elder and the first potential president from my generation. When I graduated from Tufts in 1989, he was two T stops away, studying at Harvard Law School.

We are the kids outside the Boomers — squeezed between the self-indulgent post-war demographic bulge and their pampered offspring, the Millennials. We were born, roughly speaking, between 1960 and 1973. Our parents date to the Great Depression and World War II — mine were children of the ’30s; Obama’s mother, who raised him, was born in 1942.

Lost in the shadow of that multitudinous sea of Boomers, my generation long ago turned away from the public sphere built by and for our predecessors.

Strange for us, then, to see our first successful leader embody hope, change, optimism, idealism, and belief. On the campaign trail, Obama seems to reject every attitude that my friends and I ever adopted. But I’ve come to believe that Obama is more like the rest of our generation than he looks.

What he has done, perhaps, is discover a sneaky way to get Boomers and Millennials — whose votes decide elections — to put their faith in a Gen-Xer.

Like once-moderate Mitt Romney adopting the rhetoric of social conservatives, Obama is going where the votes are. But when you look closely, I think you’ll find he’s really a Gen-Xer at heart.

Pessimistic, but happy
This presidential election was shaping up as one in which the Millennials — who, some estimate, already double my generation in voting strength — would tip an election among prospective candidates who defined themselves 40 years ago. In 1968, Hillary Clinton shifted from Republican to activist Democrat by joining Eugene McCarthy’s presidential campaign; John McCain entered solitary confinement in Hanoi’s Hoa Loa Prison; Ralph Nader organized young lawyers into “Nader’s Raiders”; and Michael Bloomberg took his Harvard MBA to Wall Street.

Obama, who was in a first-grade classroom in Jakarta in 1968, has crashed that party by offering Boomer and Millennial rhetoric, while avoiding their baggage.

Consider the words that define Obama’s campaign: “change” and “hope.” Baby Boomers are all about change: they see themselves as the agents of change, shaping the world to their liking — and then, when they reproduced, to the benefit of their children. Those Millennial kids have thus learned to expect and welcome change as something that constantly improves their lives. To them, change is a hopeful quantity.

1  |  2  |  3  |  4  |   next >
  Topics: Talking Politics , Mitt Romney, Barack Obama, Phyllis Schlafly,  More more >
| More


Most Popular
ARTICLES BY DAVID S. BERNSTEIN
Share this entry with Delicious
  •   MRS. WARREN GOES TO WASHINGTON  |  March 21, 2013
    Elizabeth Warren was the only senator on the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee, aside from the chair and ranking minority, to show up at last Thursday's hearing on indexing the minimum wage to inflation.
  •   MARCH MADNESS  |  March 12, 2013
    It's no surprise that the coming weekend's Saint Patrick's Day celebrations have become politically charged, given the extraordinary convergence of electoral events visiting South Boston.
  •   LABOR'S LOVE LOST  |  March 08, 2013
    Steve Lynch is winning back much of the union support that left him in 2009.
  •   AFTER MARKEY, GET SET, GO  |  February 20, 2013
    It's a matter of political decorum: when an officeholder is running for higher office, you wait until the election has been won before publicly coveting the resulting vacancy.
  •   RED BLUES: SCOTT BROWN EXPOSES THE EMPTY MASSACHUSETTS GOP BENCH  |  February 15, 2013
    It wasn't just that Scott Brown announced he was not running in the special US Senate election — it was that it quickly became evident that he was not handing the job off to another Republican.

 See all articles by: DAVID S. BERNSTEIN