CHICAGO — Young Americans showed their collective power when they helped vote President Obama into office. Inspired by his message of "change," they knocked on doors, spread fliers, voted for him by a 2-1 margin, and partied like rock-the-vote stars when he won.
Since the election, though, that fervor has died down — noticeably. And while young people remain the president's most loyal supporters in opinion polls, many people are wondering why that age group isn't doing more to build upon their newfound reputation as political influencers.
"It's one thing to get excited about a presidential candidate. It's another thing to become a responsible citizen," says Jennifer Donahue, political director for the New Hampshire Institute Of Politics. She and other political analysts think they have yet to prove themselves.
Professors and students themselves also are noticing the quiet on college campuses, which were hotbeds for "Obamamania" during the campaign.
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"They're supportive, but in a bystander kind of way," says Laura Katz Olson, a political science professor at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania.
Erin Carroll, a 19-year-old sophomore at LaSalle University in Philadelphia, blames the lack of engagement on her generation's short attention span. They want change — right now, she says — and haven't gotten it.
"I feel like everybody walks around with their cell phone and their laptops. We feel like we need everything immediately. So that's what we've become accustomed to," Carroll says. "We're the 'me-me-me' generation."
It's not just on college campuses.
Russ Marshalek, a 27-year-old professional in Astoria, N.Y., observes his 20-something peers sitting back and letting the president do the work for them. "Rather than allow him to speak for us, we need to be inspired by him, and volunteer in our communities, speak our minds, write, read, think, act," says Marshalek, a social media director who works with small businesses.
Such is the fate of Generation Y, as they're known, both praised for their willingness to volunteer but also maligned as the "entitlement generation" — eager to help but unsure how to deal with tumultuous times that are a first for many of them.
On top of that, many of their parents are baby boomers who witnessed, and participated in, the Civil Rights movement and Vietnam War protests that followed John F. Kennedy's death. That's a lot to live up to.
But to be fair, political scientist Mike Wagner says, it's tough for young people — or any American, for that matter — to know how to get involved in issues with solutions that aren't always so clear-cut.
Volunteering for a candidate? Fairly easy to do. Helping solve some of the toughest issues to face our nation, from health care reform to a deep-seated financial crisis? Not so much.
"These aren't easy issues for young people. It's not 'Should we go to war in Iraq?' or 'Should gay marriage be legalized?'" says Wagner, an assistant professor at the University of Nebraska.
He sees a lot of young people getting lost in the details, or bored by them. Or like a lot of us, they're more focused on their own worries, such as getting a job or paying off mountains of student loans.
Some say the president also could be doing more to engage this demographic that was so key to his early success.
"I think young people do have clout, and I think it's a mistake if he doesn't use them," says Mary Ellen Balchunis, a political science professor at LaSalle University, who counts Carroll among her students.
If he doesn't, Balchunis thinks that also could have negative ramifications for Democrats in the upcoming midterm elections, because those young voters will lose interest and won't bother to show up at the polls. That's what happened, she says, after her own young generation was initially excited about Bill Clinton when he was first elected president in 1992. Then, just two years later, Democrats lost control of Congress.
Letdown is inevitable to a point, says James Emmett, an unemployed recent college graduate.
"Of course I'm not as hopeful because everyone's been exhausted, absorbed by the economic realities, from man on the street to congressman," says the 23-year-old artist who's living with his parents on Long Island, N.Y., while he looks for work. But, he adds, the president needs to "trust that we're still with him, build upon his community of support."