Obama's appeal strong with younger voters, regardless of race

May 30, 2007|By Thomas Schaller

I'm not sure whether America is ready yet for a black president, but I do know this much: If a Barack Obama fundraiser last week in Washington is any indication, Americans under 40 sure seem amenable to the idea.

At H2O nightclub along the Potomac waterfront, more than 1,000 people shelled out $100 each to hear the 45-year-old Illinois senator give a short speech. The crowd was predominantly young, professional, racially mixed and full of what Mr. Obama might call audacious hope.

"Everywhere we've gone, we have not just big crowds but diverse crowds - crowds that span the gamut of races, of religions, of regions, of age groups and gender," said Mr. Obama. "And that sense of people coming together is a powerful thing."

When I asked attendees why they were supporting him, the words I kept hearing were "new," "fresh" and "different."

Two Haitian-born sisters in their 20s who became naturalized citizens a few years ago and have never voted in a presidential election showed up at the nightclub to get a closer look.

"I'm supporting him because it seems like he's bringing new ideas," said Daphne Francois, a law student at New York University visiting her sister, Regine, an attorney from Silver Spring.

"I think he's trying to be inclusive of all ideas," added Regine Francois.

Josh and Micaela, a husband and wife in their mid-30s who asked that their last name not be used, both voted for George W. Bush in 2000 but switched to John Kerry four years later. They found a sitter for their two kids so they could come over from suburban Arlington to check out the first African-American male Democrat elected to the Senate.

"I cannot believe how much he's bringing a new dialogue to the table," remarked Micaela, a Latina who served in the military and is a registered Republican. "He's not the same old, same old."

"We're really hopeful that America can get swept up in a leader, because we really haven't had much leadership in a while," said Josh, who is white and a registered independent.

These are the voters the Obama campaign is trying to lure and motivate.

"Politics in this town seems to always involve power trumping principle," Mr. Obama told the audience. "We get discouraged, and half of us don't bother to vote and the other half go to the polling place and hold our noses and vote against somebody rather than for somebody."

In his speeches, Mr. Obama talks a lot about the crippling power of cynicism. On May 19, he gave the commencement address at Southern New Hampshire University. "I rebelled, angry in the way that many young men in general, and young black men in particular, are angry, thinking that responsibility and hard work were old-fashioned conventions that didn't apply to me," he admitted. "I partied a little too much and studied just enough to get by."

After he and some college buddies "trashed" a dorm room, Mr. Obama's girlfriend pointed out that her grandmother was once a custodian who spent years cleaning up the messes left by thoughtless college kids like him. That moment, he says, caused him to remember that the world didn't revolve around him.

Mr. Obama admonished the new graduates to seek goals beyond the material. "In a few minutes, you can take your diploma, walk off this stage, and go chasing after the big house and the large salary and the nice suits and all the other things that our money culture says you should buy," he said. "But I hope you don't. Focusing your life solely on making a buck shows a poverty of ambition. ... And it will leave you unfulfilled."

A poll conducted by Opinion Research Corp. last December showed that 65 percent of white Americans and 54 percent of black Americans say the country is ready for a black president.

To test this proposition, of course, Mr. Obama has to win his party's nomination. And to do that, he'll have to widen his generational appeal to older Americans. If he succeeds, we will learn whether the country's ready for him.

Thomas F. Schaller is an associate professor of political science at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and author of "Whistling Past Dixie." His e-mail is schaller67@hotmail.com. His column appears Wednesdays in The Sun.

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