“People are always asking me, Why, with these fancy degrees and a professorship, would you want to go into something dirty and nasty like politics?' ” Barack Obama said when campaigning for the U.S. Senate in 2004, according to a profile in the New Yorker. “And my answer is We've got too much cynicism in this country, and we're all in this together, and government expresses that.' ”
If there’s one theme that defined Obama’s meteoric rise from the state Senate to the White House, it was his war on cynicism.
Throughout his first campaign for president, Obama used the term everywhere he went.
When he announced he was running for president in February 2007, he attacked “the cynics.” A month later, speaking at a reception during that year's American Israel Public Affairs Committee conference, he declared that “cynicism” was one of the leading barriers to Middle East peace.
Accepting the Democratic presidential nomination in August 2008, Obama said that negative campaigning “feeds into the cynicism we all have about government. When Washington doesn't work, all its promises seem empty.”
In a victory speech that November, he concluded, “where we are met with cynicism and doubts and those who tell us that we can't, we will respond with that timeless creed that sums up the spirit of a people: Yes, we can.”
Fueled to presidency with the help of overwhelming support from younger voters, Obama’s tenure was going to test whether a new generation of voters could grow up thinking of Washington as a force for good.
But now, as he's entering the part of his presidency often described as the “six-year itch,” an April survey from Harvard University's Institute of Politics points to a younger generation that instead has become entirely disillusioned with Washington and its institutions.
Among the findings, just 32 percent of Americans ages 18 to 29 who were surveyed said that they trust the president to do the right thing at least most of the time, and just 20 percent said they trusted the federal government.
Other questions reveled a similar level of discouragement — or, one might say, cynicism. Of survey respondents, 62 percent agreed with the statement that “elected officials seem to be motivated by selfish reasons,” compared with just 7 percent who disagreed. Also, 48 percent agreed that “politics today are no longer able to meet the challenges our country is facing” — compared to just 14 percent who disagreed.
Another question found that 51 percent agreed with the statement, “I am concerned about the moral direction of the country,” compared with just 15 percent who disagreed.
Politically, the survey was bad news for Democrats, as it also showed a lack of enthusiasm about midterm elections among millennials, particularly among more liberal young Americans -- even more so than in 2010, when Republicans swept into control of the House of Representatives.
If this trend holds, it's also bad news for the 2016 Democratic nominee. Though it's true that the electorate in midterm elections has typically skewed older, Obama was able to win his presidential races on the back of historically high support from younger voters.
The reason why Obama’s support was so high among younger voters was that his message of overcoming cynicism with hope inspired a new generation that hadn’t experienced the political disappointments of previous generations.
The fact that Obama has lost this war on cynicism, and presided over the erosion of confidence in government institutions among the young, will make it that much more difficult for other Democrats.