I Miss Barack and Michelle Obama — but Not Their Slander of Young Voters
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I Miss Barack and Michelle Obama — but Not Their Slander of Young Voters

Everyone’s favorite First…

If the Obamas want to convince young people to play a greater role in government, smugly suggesting that they don’t know how America works might not be the best use of their talents of persuasion.

Last week, former President Barack Obama joined his wife, former First Lady Michelle Obama, on the premiere episode of The Michelle Obama Podcast; they discussed social justice in the wake of George Floyd’s death, their own paths toward politics and advocacy, and the importance of the younger generation becoming more politically engaged. Michelle Obama spoke with fondness about the young people across the country that have taken to the streets to protest, but expressed lingering concerns about “too many young people who question whether voting, whether politics is worth it.”

Her husband offered an assessment as to why that may be — but it’s one that doesn’t completely respect the intelligence of its intended audience.

“Well, partly because they have been told. The message is sent every day that government doesn’t work,” he explained. “They take for granted all the things that a working government has done in the past… in some ways, we’re still living on the investment that was made by that greatest generation.”

Michelle Obama went on to joke that young people know more about the cereal they are eating than what the government is doing, attributing that to “marketing budgets.” I didn’t laugh, but Barack Obama went on to add: “The danger for this generation is that they have become too deeply cynical in government. Not understanding that all government is us collectively making decisions together.”

Obama may not be the same person who lamented “welfare queens” while in office, but he did share Reagan’s love of austerity to the detriment of the rest of us. That’s why it’s so comical to hear about the need for government to find a “marketing budget” when the reality is that if there had been one, Obama probably would have cut it.

Both were more optimistic than not that “folks are going to do the right thing,” but I can’t imagine these words will be what pushes them in that direction.

I reached a similar conclusion while watching Netflix documentary Becoming and listening to my favorite First Lady share rightful frustrations about the man who succeeded her husband.

“You know, the day I left the White House, it was painful to sit on that stage, and then a lot of our folks didn’t vote — it was almost a slap in the face,” she said to a group of Black schoolchildren in the documentary. “I understand the people who voted for [Donald] Trump. [But] the people who didn’t vote at all… that’s when you think, ‘Man, people think this is a game.’”

The blaming continued: “It wasn’t just in this election, but every midterm, every time Barack didn’t get the Congress he needed, that was because our folks didn’t show up. After all that work, they just couldn’t be bothered to vote at all. That’s my trauma.”

I can only imagine the trauma of having to watch an apricot-hued asshole and his plagiarist clan take over your house — a house they didn’t have to make even a fraction of the sacrifices to gain access to — but it didn’t have to be this way. Hillary Clinton was warned about taking the Black vote lightly; as far as I’m concerned, that’s on them and the rest of y’all’s party.

Technically, I no longer qualify as a “younger voter” given that I’ve breezed past the age of 35 (and now apparently matter significantly less to marketers), but since studies show that members of Gen Z mirror the ideology of millennials, I think I can speak for two generations when I say that the Obamas could stand to see a view from a less lofty slice of American life.

Elders love to invoke the Greatest Generation to denote effective government, but when is the last time we’ve had that great of an investment in government? I was born under a dumb showboating bigot by the name of Ronald Reagan, who, as I came to understand it, is very much responsible for so many of America’s current ills after taking a battering ram called Reaganomics to government and the safety net. Given that, Barack Obama’s professed affinity for Reagan has been confounding — and increasingly telling.

Obama may not be the same person who lamented “welfare queens” while in office, but he did share Reagan’s love of austerity to the detriment of the rest of us. That’s why it’s so comical to hear about the need for government to find a “marketing budget” when the reality is that if there had been one, Obama probably would have cut it.

Despite being the children of the Greatest Generation, the Obamas’ demo didn’t generally express a bright and shiny view of government. In the summer before Obama won his first presidential election, a Pew Research project called boomers “the gloomiest generation.” By 2019, the majority of the generation were not only still working, but the oldest among them — who were by then in their late seventies — were remaining in the labor force at the highest annual rate for people their age in more than 50 years. In late July, one in four boomers blamed the pandemic for postponing an already delayed retirement.

None of that is meant to detract from Obama’s importance or legacy. I can talk to my parents about tangible changes we’ve seen in our collective lifetimes, and one thing we share is an affinity for the Obamas and what they represent. Yet, no matter your age, right about now you understand (maybe for the first time) how little government has actually done for you. That’s not the result of some breaking news or gross misunderstanding, but rather how this country has functioned for longer than some would care to admit.

We know that the government will find money for causes it wants to advocate, and we know that those causes almost never benefit the general population. Again, that pattern extends well beyond the Trump administration.

We should be terrified of President Trump’s secret police force that has been descending on cities over the past month, but we also need to understand that his ability to amass and mobilize that MAGA gestapo is rooted in the Obama administration’s gross expansion of the Department of Homeland Security. Under Barack, the once-small group was bolstered by a budget increase of 3,600%, and by now has given the executive branch far too many federal agents to be used at its disposal. This is what earned Obama the title of “deporter-in-chief.”

The lack of humanity in that decision is what allowed the current White House occupant to amplify an existing abuse of power. Barack Obama and Donald Trump differ on policing, but let the record show that in spite of a 2015 executive order from President Obama, local police forces didn’t stop getting military equipment. (Again, this all happened during times of otherwise austerity.)

Barack Obama is the best president of my lifetime. That’s not the point. The point is, no matter who sits at the top, it remains hard to get many in government to care about the Black and Brown. Not even all Obama administration alums respect us. Rahm Emanuel, his former chief of staff, went on to become mayor of Chicago — and was ultimately accused of trying to hide video of the police shooting of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald. (He also closed more than 50 schools in a single year, while pushing for more gentrification.)

Yet, Barack Obama actually praised Emanuel after all of this. So if you want to talk about trauma and being let down, let the record state that the hurt is not one-sided.

One can be critical of Barack and Michelle Obama for what they said while continuing to admire who they are, what they’ve done, and what they’re capable of still doing. Still, if their aim is to continue to bring new people into the process, they need to respect that people have very real reasons to be disenchanted with the voting process, and they go far beyond “they don’t know any better.” They know. It’s why they’re so damn pissed off. Apathy and cynicism are not innate qualities; they’re byproducts of the conditions that placed them there. Those feelings will never change if not first acknowledged and addressed.

If the Obamas continue to simply sit on high and opine as if they don’t understand that, whatever else they say might soon fall on deaf ears. And we have precious little time for that.