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Are Obama's Problems Generational?

Are Obama's Problems Generational?

By Steven Stark - March 22, 2009

One of the major themes of Barack Obama's political philosophy has been that it's time for America to move beyond the Baby Boom Generation's petty partisanship. In The Audacity of Hope, he wrote that when he observed politics in his younger days, "I sometimes felt as if I were watching the psychodrama of the Baby Boom Generation -- a tale rooted in old grudges and revenge plots hatched on a handful of college campuses long ago -- played out on the national stage."

Once he became a presidential candidate, Obama picked up on the theme. "I think there is no doubt that we represent the kind of change that Senator Clinton can't deliver on, and part of it is generational," he said. In a key article boosting Obama in December of 2007, Andrew Sullivan in the Atlantic argued that Obama "could take America -- finally -- past the debilitating, self-perpetuating family quarrel of the Baby Boom Generation that has long engulfed all of us."

So Obama, even though some would technically still consider him a late baby boomer (or part of the transitional "Generation Jones" -- born in 1961) became the president of a new generation, boosted by strong support among an even younger generation. In the White House, he has surrounded himself with his generational cohort, including Rahm Emanuel (two years older) and Tim Geithner (same age as the president).

By looking at the characteristics of Obama's generation, we can learn a lot about the leaders we're putting our faith in. The result? We might be on the verge of either the first "Blackberry Presidency" or, figuratively, a "Steroid Presidency."

What characterizes the Obama generation? To its boosters, like Jonathan Pontell, author of the "Generation Jones" construct, they (people born in the mid-1950s to the mid-'60s) are "practical idealists," tempered by growing up in a world in which many of their parents were more interested in self-fulfillment than they were in their children. That meant that, as latch-key kids stuck in front of the TV or left to their own devices, they had to master their own destiny at an early age the best they could.

"Where the Boomers naively tried to change the system and the Xers in a sense walked away from the system, my generation used the system to get what we wanted," Pontell told a reporter. "It's like the Boomers never realized they were playing the game, the Xers folded their cards, and my generation was wise to the game but said deal the cards anyway."

Spinning it all positively, a post-Baby Boomer sees a problem or opening and solves it. That's certainly a trait one would want in a president right now and Obama demonstrated he had it by "audaciously" running for the presidency at such an early stage of his career.

Then there's this generation's love of technology and "the new," forged in Andrew Thompson's words "out of a lifetime of upgrading from Atari to Nintendo to Sega to Xbox." Thompson, who writes the blog Gen-X Rising (genxrising.com), wrote perceptively of his generation (and he considers the slightly older Obama a compatriot), "We . . . were shaped by rapid technological change smack-dab in the middle of our most formative years. And that molded the way we understand the world in which we live."

Gen X is, after all, the generation that created much of our modern tech world -- YouTube, Wikipedia, and Yahoo. It's not necessarily technology that "saves the world," à la visionary Boomer Steve Jobs, but practical stuff one can really use.

So far, so good. But what people have tended to forget are some of the critiques of the cultural leanings of Obama's generation.

Long ago, former New York Times columnist Russell Baker was one of the first to notice that a generation that grows up hooked on the latest technology tends to suffer from "herky-jerky brain" -- or what others might characterize as a generation-wide case of attention deficit disorder. In their book Generations, William Strauss and Neil Howe also describe how other generations often find the members of this generation "frenetic," "slippery," or rather empty -- driven more by ambition than anything else. Strauss and Howe relate how the drug of choice for some of the males of this generation has been steroids -- literally a physical manifestation of all the pumped-up hype with which they surround themselves.

During the campaign, we heard all about the positive aspects of generational change. Are the negative ones now coming into focus? After all, the most well-known Gen-Xers who have preceded Obama onto the world stage were notorious for their uncanny powers of self-promotion that, in the end, represented style more than substance. There was Princess Di (born the same year as Obama) or even Michael Jordan (born two years later and, now that he no longer plays basketball, known mostly for his shoes).

Like his cohort, the president also can't live without his "toys" -- his Blackberry and his teleprompter. But is his generation's tech addiction part of the reason why he has such difficulty focusing on the one great economic problem facing the nation, choosing instead to push a 27-part agenda?

Nero fiddled while Rome burned. The fear is that this brand new generation in charge will Twitter and text while America faces potential catastrophe. It would truly be ironic if we all ended up longing for the old, fractious days of messianic idealism, when the Boomers were still in charge and everyone had to hear about Woodstock again and again.

To read the "Stark Ravings" blog, go to thePhoenix.com/blogs/starkravings.

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