On January 20th, 1961, John Fitzgerald Kennedy proclaimed in his inaugural speech that “the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans–born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage.” It was a humble declaration that his generation would take on the challenge of leading our country through some of its most difficult challenges.
On January 20th, 2009, a new president will be sworn to office, with challenges as great as those faced by Kennedy. He will be the president that defines the ideals of the next generation of Americans, whose understanding of the world has been framed by 9/11, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the unraveling of our once thought unsinkable economy.
JFK was the first American president born in the 20th Century. He was of a different generation than his predecessor, Dwight D. Eisenhower, who was born in 1890, and FDR before him. Kennedy’s election represented the changing of the guard to a new generation of leaders in our country – men who had entered political consciousness during the aftermath of the great depression and the demanding times of World War II. His ascent to leadership came during trying times. The Civil Rights movement, which began in Montgomery, Alabama in 1956, had created a deep racial divide in the south, and the arms build-up of the Soviet Union was feeding widespread angst about attacks from overseas. The Vietnam war was in its early stages, but in the years to come, a deep polarization would split the country between those supporting the war and the social movement that sprung up to protest it.
My parents were part of the early baby boomers, born in the 1940s-1950s, and who came to understand the world based on the way it changed during the ’60s, beginning with Kennedy’s initiation of the Civil Rights act (signed after his death). For some, it meant an embracing of equality and peace, and for others, it meant the opposite. It is likely no coincidence that this generation, which has sat in the White House for the past 16 years, and that composes a significant portion of Congress has had such great difficulty uniting on issues. It is a generation born out of great dissent – a generation that includes names like Bill and Hillary Clinton, George W. Bush, Nancy Pelosi, Mitt Romney, Dick Cheney and Mitch McConnell.
For all intents and purposes, 2008 should be another election between two members of the early baby boomer generation. They are still relatively young, and as active as ever on the Hill. However, this election and the events that unfolded during the Bush presidency have left everyone – Republicans and Democrats alike – looking for some kind of change. Over 90% of the country thinks that the country is headed on the wrong track, and President Bush’s approval rating of 25% is the lowest of any president in American history.
This election has turned out to be the most exciting election in decades, and record voter turnout is expected. It could be the first election where people under 30 make the difference in the outcome. According to Pew Research Center, there will be 58 million Millennials eligible to vote this year, about one-quarter of the total electorate and second in size only to the aging Baby Boomer generation. Voters under 30 made up only 14% of the electorate in 2000 and 16% in 2004.
The so-called “Millennials” have been untouched by the division of the Vietnam era. 9/11 was our first real indication that we were vulnerable to the outside world, and as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan escalated in unison with our ascent into political consciousness, we formed our ideals and views on how the world should work. We are the generation of social networking, web 2.0, and clever Internet campaigns mastered this year by Barack Obama. You can find us on both the Left and Right sides of the political spectrum, although most data will indicate that we lean to the Left. Either way, we are ready to participate in an election that will define the country we live in for decades to come.
To be sure, young voters may have many of the same concerns as their parents and grandparents, but we are voting with different stakes in mind. We are voting for the man that will represent the way that we come to understand the world, and that will likely be remembered (if successful) as the FDR of our time.
Starting day one, our president will have to borrow from the wisdom of FDR to restore public confidence in the future of our economy, while guiding an infinitely complex bailout plan. In the longer term, the president will have to find a balance between free markets and regulation that prevents the moral hazards that created the financial crisis, and revitalize a middle/working class that has been crippled by declining wages, rising healthcare costs, lost jobs, and heightening inequality. He will have to cut down an $11 trillion budget deficit (and the social security and Medicare deficits), while also finding ways to fund healthcare and education initiatives.
The president will have to finally create an exit door for the war in Iraq, while opening a window to go back into an increasingly tenuous situation in Afghanistan. As Al-Qaeda forces disappear from Afghanistan into Pakistan, the President will have to decide how long to pursue diplomacy should a nuclear-armed Pakistan remain unable or unwilling to cooperate. He will have to take initiative to address Iran’s enriching of uranium, while also keeping an eye on North Korea.
If our country is to continue consuming 25 percent of the world’s oil supply while only owning 3 percent of its reserves, the President will need to develop new solutions for producing energy and regulating its consumption. He will have to work with India and China, the new great consumers of energy to find ways to reduce carbon emissions on a global scale.
Our President will have to be a “uniter.” The 2008 campaign trail has found politicians drawing lines between “American” and “un-American” parts of the country, linking Barack Obama to Islamic terrorism, and in some cases, reminding us of the ugliness that our parents experienced during the Vietnam era and the Civil Rights movement. As Colin Powell recently explained on Meet the Press, “These are the kinds of images going out on Al Jazeera that are killing us around the world. And we have got to say to the world it doesn’t make any difference who you are and what you are. If you’re an American, you’re an American.”
With two members of the liberal wing of the Supreme Court, John Paul Stevens and Ruth Bader Ginsburg likely to retire, the President will have to find replacements which could make dramatic shifts in our country’s interpretation of highly sensitive issues like civil rights, abortion and gay marriage. He will also have to weigh in on issues of privacy, imprisonment, and use of torture that have overstepped many constitutional bounds under the Bush Administration.
In short, the next President will have to do a lot – and the priorities that he sets will create the country that the Baby Boomers can settle into, and that Millennial generation can begin to call their own.
Pass the torch please.Thanks.