Great Expectations

What do young Americans get for helping Obama?

The president has four more years to prove that the faded Obama posters are as valuable today as they were in 2008
(Illustration by Chester Soria)

ON THE NIGHT of his reelection, President Barack Obama promised four initiatives in a second term: trim the deficit, rework the nation’s tax code, revisit immigration reform and reduce dependence on foreign oil.

Each of these things matters to young Americans. But teenagers and 20-somethings – who turned out in greater numbers than in 2008 and gave Obama 60 percent of their vote – have their own urgent priorities. Young people need jobs, health care and a piece of the promised immigration reforms. And they’ll be watching for progress as the president shapes his next administration.

Not so funemployed

While Obama’s encore is likely to be defined by an economic recovery, he will have to make a concerted political effort to ensure that young Americans have a shot at getting good jobs. Unfortunately for those who have become all too cozy in their parents’ basements, this is unlikely to happen. A new economy based on science and technology sounds great, but Obama’s record on job creation has almost singularly concentrated on old-school labor such as car manufacturing.

Since the Great Recession, anybody under the age of 30 has probably learned the hard way that finding a 9-to-5 with a solid salary and benefits package is a job in and of itself. Most cobble together some semblance of a living: a part-time job or two, some freelance work here and there, or even a check from Grandma in the mail. For those who have been living this way for a few years now, it may finally be sinking in that this is what the economy looks like now.

Obama’s second term jobs plan, released in a hurry during the waning days of the campaign, makes no mention of young people.

There are some good ideas to make this model work. For example, Washington could create risk pools that allow freelancers to enjoy the same lower-cost health insurance offered to employees of big companies. And independent workers should be able to contribute to a pre-tax fund that they can tap when their careers hit a dry spell. These ideas represent the kinds of policy changes necessary to cope with a new, post-recession economy.

But Obama’s second term jobs plan, released in a hurry during the waning days of the campaign, makes the kind of vague and grandiose appeal to voting blocs that tends to grab headlines around election time. It makes no mention of young people entering – or languishing outside of – the workforce

While Obama has made some effort to tackle the other elephant in the room – student loan debt – there aren’t many proposals to help young people find a sustainable living after graduation. And we shouldn’t expect many new commitments. It’s not a matter of if, but rather what Obama will agree to cut from the federal budget during fiscal-cliff negotiations with Republicans.

American DREAMers

In 2008, Obama made a qualified promise on comprehensive immigration reform. “I cannot guarantee that it is going to be in the first 100 days,” the then-candidate said. “But what I can guarantee is that we will have in the first year an immigration bill that I strongly support and that I’m promoting. And I want to move that forward as quickly as possible.”

Unfortunately, “quickly as possible” still hasn’t happened. Young Latinos who unwittingly crossed the border illegally have spent years asking Congress to pass the DREAM Act, giving them a legal path to residency and citizenship. It’s an issue that speaks not just to those immigrants but also to the young citizens who grew up around them.

Obama issued an order allowing certain young immigrants to legally work in the country, but the decree is still a far cry from what DREAMers have been asking for. After the election, the question is not whether Republicans, embarking on a newfound mission to expand their base, can match Obama’s interest in immigration reform. The question is who will lead. The president’s second term might be his – and the Democrats’ – last foreseeable window of opportunity to lead on immigration.

In sickness and health

Much has been made of the benefits for young people in Obama’s Affordable Care Act, such as the provision that allows those under 26 to stay on their parents’ health plan. But there are still plenty of other concerns.

Few pundits and politicians mention that in order for 26-year-olds to stay on their parents’ plan, the parents need a plan to begin with. What happens to the children of parents who lack health insurance? That is a rarely discussed problem, even at a time when 48.6 million people are still uninsured.

Some uninsured Americans enroll in government programs that give them a modicum of security. In particular, an increasing number will now rely on Medicaid. Under Obamacare, Medicaid will expand, opening up coverage for as many as 15 million Americans between the ages of 19 and 34, according to the Urban Institute.

But with negotiations on the impending fiscal cliff raging in Washington and on the trail, it’s difficult to see how a deal can be struck without touching entitlement programs like Social Security, Medicare – and Medicaid. Obama is more likely to make a bargain that preserves his legacy as the president who fixed the budget rather than the leader who preserved the social safety net for future generations.

None of this is to say that there aren’t other issues that weigh heavily on young Americans. Included in their ranks, for example, are more than 1.4 million military veterans under the age of 34. Obama needs to rehabilitate a deficient Department of Veterans Affairs to better meet the needs of an increasing number of young men and women who served during the longest period of warfare in American history.

The president has four more years to prove he can see through his agenda for young Americans, both from the 2012 campaign and from 2008. It’s the only way he can prove to young citizens that their faded Obama posters are just as valuable today as they were four years ago. ■

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