A Generation Rises with Obama


On his way to Denver, Barack Obama has been trying to mainstream his campaign. The selection of Sen. Joe Biden as his running mate was intended to be a steadying force as the historic nature of his campaign as a candidate of change remains unsettling for some. But so much has been said about his status as a candidate of racial change, that his status as a candidate of generational change has been little noticed. The torch, as JFK might say, is passing to a new generation.

Obama is the first Gen X Presidential candidate — for better and for worse.

He's the son of a baby boomer — his mother, Anne, was born in 1942 — and although his birth in 1961 puts him slightly ahead of the textbook mid-1960s start date of Gen X, he is the same age as the man who coined the term "Generation X," author Douglas Coupland.

Like many Gen Xers, Obama is a child of divorce. His anthropologist mother embodied the restless drift and countercultural curiosity of the baby boomer generation. His grandparents' lives were more typical of the "greatest generation" — with struggles through the Great Depression and then the Second World War, followed by a more conventional, even conservative, life.

His mother married a Kenyan; his grandparents voted for Nixon — Barack tried to bridge the divide.

Reconciling these generational tensions has been the unwelcome responsibility of Gen X. We have been living in the wake of the Boomers all our lives. We've benefited from the civil rights struggles and enjoyed the opening of our culture, from rock music to the sexual revolution.

But we've also experienced the fallout from their excesses — drug abuse, racial strife, fractured families, homelessness, AIDS, a decaying environment and dangerous inner cities. Gen Xers have been left to clean up after the Baby Boomers' party, to put up with the societal growing pains, and try to reconcile the warring factions.

Obama voiced this frustration in "The Audacity of Hope," writing, "In the back and forth between Clinton and Gingrich, and in the elections of 2000 and 2004, I sometimes felt as if I were watching the psychodrama of the Baby Boom generation — a tale rooted in old grudges and revenge plots hatched on a handful of college campuses long ago — played out on the national stage."

His antidote is the rhetorical post-partisanship and professed belief in political pragmatism that are central to his political appeal amongst younger voters. His style of problem-solving — a cool assessment of the problems associated with predictable positions on both sides, and then an attempt to synthesize new solutions — fits Gen X perfectly.

Jeff Gordinier, author of "X Saves the World: How Generation X Got the Shaft but Can Still Keep Everything from Sucking," told me. "Obama's talk about going beyond the old politics of 'red' and 'blue', liberal and conservative, and building a third way does resonate. Gen Xers tend to be pretty post-ideological, there is less allegiance to any one party or any one way of thinking. … Our political pragmatism comes as a result of growing up in the shadow of the Boomers' idealism and seeing it fail miserably."

But there is another aspect of the Generation X experience Obama must overcome: They are the first American generation to come of age without a draft.

While McCain entered military service as a young man, Obama opted for a combination of higher education and community service. At the age when McCain was a prisoner of war in the Hanoi Hilton, Obama was at Harvard Law. To be fair, McCain is a legendary military hero because his experience was uncommon. Obama's experience — inevitably cushy by comparison, both liberal and elite — is more common to contemporary Americans.

But biography is at the root of what pollsters clinically call "character attributes," and this does not help in the commander in chief test.

Obama's college years were full of generationally recognizable rites of passage — detailed with disarming candor in his first book, "Dreams from My Father" — smoking cigarettes and some pot and drinking beer while listening to '70s and '80s rock and soul. There were the confusing cross-currents of yuppie culture and multicultural identity politics — particularly resonant to a biracial student like Obama — and protests against the evils of apartheid while the evils of communism were comparatively ignored on campus. Before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the civic demands of John McCain's pre-Boomer generation experience of personal sacrifice and physical courage were largely limited to debate amongst Gen Xers.

The generational fault lines under this campaign are rumbling right below the surface. It's no accident that Hillary Rodham Clinton's strength in the late Democratic primaries came overwhelmingly from older white Americans who have now begun to shift their allegiance to one of their own, John McCain. This is not just about race; it is also a generational judgment — the sense among older voters that Obama is a self-possessed smooth operator who is light on real world experience, and hasn't earned the office.

Obama, in turn, runs strongest among his contemporaries — voters under 50 and African-Americans. The younger the voter, the more likely they are to support Barack Obama.

The so-called enthusiasm gap — and the pop-culture fascination with Obama — parallels other famous first-in-their-generation presidential candidates, Jack Kennedy and Bill Clinton. The younger Millennial Generation's reverence for Obama may have fueled the "celebrity" ads, but it's because he's made politics (briefly) cool again. With the Jay-Z "Dirt Off Your Shoulder" riff during the primary and pioneering use of YouTube and Facebook, Obama speaks the language of our contemporary culture and he looks like what's next — the first high-tech, hip-hop president.

After four decades and two administrations dominated by the Baby Boomer echo chamber, it's understandable that we'd want to turn the page and get a president who has learned from their debates but is not held hostage by them.

The promise of Obama is in transcending outdated labels and bridging old divides, but beneath that promise there is also a dash of democracy's vanity — we like him because he is like us. As Gen X humorist Joel Stein wrote in Time magazine, "The truth is that I like Obama because he's young, he eats arugula, and knows who Ludacris is. Because he's the closest thing to the person I'd really like to vote for: me."

John P. Avlon is the author of “Independent Nation: How Centrists Can Change American Politics.” He served as chief speechwriter and deputy policy director for Rudy Giuliani's presidential campaign. This article first appeared on www.politico.com.

© 2008 Capitol News Company, LLC