Leaders For A New Age

Each and every time, a new generation has risen up and done what's needed to be done. Today we are called once more—and it's time for our generation to answer that call." That was U.S. Sen. Barack Obama announcing his presidential candidacy last February. The echo of John F. Kennedy's 1961 Inaugural Address—"the torch has been passed to a new generation"—is no accident. The 46-year-old Obama is among the youngest serious contenders for the American presidency since JFK, who was just 43 when he took the oath of office. And Obama's campaign has been eager to invite parallels to the youthful president.

In New Hampshire and in Iowa, Obama found that a new generation was indeed ready to answer his call. Although his older rival Hillary Clinton edged him out in New Hampshire, Obama led heavily among voters under the age of 30, according to exit polls. His victory in the Iowa caucuses was the result of a record turnout, particularly among the young. Exit polls there showed him supported by 60 percent of those under 25 and half of those under 45, while older caucusgoers favored Clinton. While it is too soon to know whether Obama will clinch the Democratic nomination, let alone the presidency, America is far from the only nation where baby-faced politicians are dominating the headlines. In Europe as well, men and women too young to have been shaped by either of the two major ideological contests of the 20th century—the battle against fascism and the long twilight struggle against communism—are reaching the highest echelons of political power.

In Britain, Foreign Secretary David Miliband is just 42. He is among the most prominent members of what's been called the "second generation" of New Labour, a group whose ranks include Miliband's younger brother, Ed, 38, who is a minister in the Cabinet Office, and Ed Balls, 40, secretary of State for children, schools and families and one of the prime minister's closest advisers. Meanwhile, the leader of the opposition Conservative Party, David Cameron, is just 41. Across the channel, Nicolas Sarkozy, very much a baby boomer—he turns 53 this month—won the French presidency last year railing against the " '68ers"—those on the left whose political identities were forged in Paris street battles of the 1960s and who, Sarkozy argued, are now dangerously out of step with the times. Once in office, Sarkozy appointed a number of youthful politicians to cabinet posts, including his 42-year-old protégée, Rachida Dati, as Justice minister. In Germany, 35-year-old Hubertus Heil has been making waves as general secretary of the Social Democratic Party, a post he has held since 2005.

In Denmark, Helle Thorning-Schmidt, the post-boomer who leads the Social Democrats there, narrowly missed becoming that country's first female prime minister in November's elections. And in Sweden, post-boomer power is already a fact: Fredrik Reinfeldt, 42, was elected Sweden's prime minister in late 2006. In Russia, Dmitry Medvedev will also be 42 when he succeeds Vladimir Putin as his hand-picked successor in March. The age difference between the two is just 13 years, but the generational gap is enormous. Putin was born when Stalin was still alive, and was brought up as one of the last believers in communism and the greatness of the Soviet empire; Medvedev grew up in a family of intellectuals and was still a student in liberal Leningrad when every intelligent young person in the country was picking those orthodoxies apart.

To borrow a phrase from a previous era: there's something happening here. This new crop of politicians is different. Compared with the baby boomers, they are more technocratic, more global in outlook, more comfortable with technology, more idealistic and yet less ideological and less invested in old debates. They are also international in a way most of their parents' generation was not. Both Obama and Dati are the children of immigrants, used to having one foot in two cultures. Thorning-Schmidt is married to a Brit (former U.K. Labour leader Neil Kinnock's son, Stephen). David Miliband's wife, Louise Shackleton, has dual U.S.-British citizenship; the couple adopted two children from the United States. And all these politicos think nothing of hopping on a plane to get close to the action. "We're the global generation by virtue of travel," says David Miliband. "But we're also the global generation because of new technology."

In the coming years this generational shift promises to transform politics and foreign policy. Joseph Nye, dean of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, says that seminal moments tend to color the way leaders behave for a generation. During the 1956 Suez crisis, British Prime Minister Anthony Eden became obsessed with avoiding "another Munich." Two decades later, Vietnam replaced Munich as the new lodestone, at least in the United States. Every subsequent U.S. military intervention brought fears of a "quagmire," and for decades later U.S. presidential candidates were judged on whether they supported the war, and whether they served or dodged the draft. "The new generation doesn't have those hang-ups," Nye says.

Instead, the new generation has been influenced by the end of the cold war, September 11 and the Iraq War. Just how these influences will play out in policymaking remains uncertain. But in general, there is a feeling among these new leaders that the West has something positive to offer the world. They support the continued spread of democracy and liberalism, particularly to Muslim nations. They are optimistic about the long-term prospects of reining in Islamic terrorism—perhaps because they saw that the struggle against communism, which many of their forebears once thought interminable, was ultimately winnable. Yet there is also a new realization that democracy and liberalism do not always go hand in hand.

There are varying degrees of skepticism about the ability of the West to control the pace of democratization, particularly through force. Obama opposed intervention in Iraq from the outset and has said he would seek talks with Iran and North Korea. Cameron has accused his Labour rivals of pursuing "liberal interventionist utopias about remaking the whole world" and entangling Britain in too many conflicts abroad. He would define Britain's national security more narrowly.

Both left and right are focused on climate change with an intensity that eluded their elders. And immigration and its challenges to cultural identity is a preoccupation of younger politicians in a way it wasn't for their parents. Denmark's Thorning-Schmidt, for instance, has spent much of her short political career groping for a middle ground between those who favor lenient asylum laws and further immigration to Denmark and those who would slam its doors shut. There is also general support for globalization, matched with heightened attention to providing support for those whose livelihoods are threatened when jobs are outsourced. On both the left and the right, there is widespread support for a state-provided social safety net, coupled with a realization, particularly in Europe, that current benefits and the tax systems that support them have become overly burdensome and must be reformed.

Many of these young politicos share a contempt for dogma—and an ability to find bridges between left and right. These are not veterans of the left-right battles that defined their parents' politics. Instead, part of their appeal lies in the sense that they have been able, and will continue, to upend the old order. Thorning-Schmidt took on the Social Democrats' old guard on immigration and welfare reform to gain the party's leadership. Dati, the French Justice minister, has disturbed the ancien régime. Judges and lawyers chained themselves to courthouses to protest her decision to shutter some 300 tribunals throughout the country. David Miliband has shaken up the tweedy corridors of King Charles Street, bringing a crusading style to the Foreign Office, including a greater focus on climate change and poverty eradication. Cameron, the British Conservative leader, has attempted to reposition a party that had been hopelessly outmaneuvered by Tony Blair's New Labour for the past decade by projecting a more youthful image and moving the party to the left on domestic issues, blurring the line between the Conservatives and Labour and risking the ire of his own backbenchers.

A break with the past also lies at the heart of Obama's appeal, particularly among independent voters. In his policy proposals, he differs little from his principal Democratic rivals. And yes, he is technically a baby boomer, just like Hillary Clinton. (Demographers consider all those born between 1946 and 1964 part of that group.) But his formative political experiences were markedly different than those of Clinton, who is 14 years his senior. While she was protesting the Vietnam War in college, he was just 7 years old and living in Indonesia. "Civil rights, sexual revolution, Vietnam War. Those all sort of passed me by," he told one interviewer. As such, he is the first truly post-'60s candidate to hit the presidential-campaign trail, and what he's peddling is an opportunity to escape the culture wars that have plagued American politics since that time. Indeed, for supporters of Barack Hussein Obama, it's about biography, not policy. What better way to restore America's standing in the world and heal the divisiveness over race and immigration, some argue, than to elect an immigrant's son and a biracial president, with a Muslim middle name?

Still, experience, or the lack of it, seems to be the Achilles' heel of this wave of leaders. An earlier generation of politicians achieved success in local government, business or the military before taking high national office. And many boomer politicos had their political baptism on the street—through the protest movements against the Vietnam War, nuclear arms and racial segregation. Joschka Fischer, the former German foreign minister, joined the Green Party only after a decade spent as a militant left-wing activist, and even then the party he led was hardly establishment. The Greens in those years loved to mock the pretensions of the dominant Christian Democrats and Social Democrats, turning up to Parliament in jeans and sneakers and bringing the theatrical tactics of protest politics with them into the Bundestag. Fischer once marched to Parliament carrying a tree.

It's hard to imagine another Fischer among today's young politicos. Many of these leaders—Obama, the Miliband brothers, Cameron, Heil, Dati and Thorning-Schmidt among them—rapidly climbed the political ladder, but have little experience outside that relatively cloistered world. Obama was a community organizer for just three years before becoming a state senator, David Miliband went from Oxford and MIT to a think tank and then became a top Labour Party policy wonk, and so on. "They all have similar backgrounds," says Olaf Cramme, the acting director of the Policy Network, a group in Britain that has worked with young European progressives. "They all have had first-class educations, but no experience other than public policy or related jobs."

So while they may have different ideas about policy than their elders, they don't define themselves against the establishment—they are the establishment. Their relative lack of experience outside the world of politics means they tend to believe in the ability of politics to transform the world, emphasizing "optimism" in a way that might embarrass more-grizzled political veterans. "Hope" has become one of the central themes of Obama's campaign, and in one of his standard stump speeches he says he gets ribbed about it from time to time because "people tend to get cynical." But, as skeptics might point out, hope is not a foreign policy and it won't reform Social Security. And idealism, decoupled from experience, appears brash at best, foolhardy at worst. Heil, the German SPD general secretary, was elected to Parliament in 1998 at the tender age of 26. He has no experience at all outside of party politics. And when he tried to push the Social Democrats to the right—on issues like unemployment pay—the move backfired, alienating the party's base. Dati has never held elected office at all; she was a junior prosecutor until she began working under Sarkozy in the Interior Ministry in 2002. "There is a danger, a risk certainly, to be seen as a technocratic person capable of working in politics but out of touch with the problems of the real world," says Cramme.

It doesn't help matters that many ascendant leaders look even younger than they are. The British press has mocked David Miliband for appearing like an overeager sixth former in House of Commons debates. Thorning-Schmidt's model-esque beauty and passion for fashion hurt her campaign: the press branded her "Gucci Helle," and her opponent, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, then 54, effectively painted her as a political lightweight who lacked the common touch. The same criticism has dogged Dati, with judges upset about her judicial reforms lashing out at the designer dresses and high heels of this "Barbie-doll minister." One of Obama's greatest challenges in taking on Clinton is the perceived "experience gap" between the two candidates—a gap that is only widened in the public mind by Obama's baby face and big ears. In a somewhat different way, even Russia's Medvedev is considered too tender to lead on his own. The conventional wisdom is that Putin endorsed him largely as a way of maintaining his own power.

But ready or not, this generation's moment has arrived—and much sooner than anyone would have predicted. If elections were held today in Britain, opinion polls suggest Cameron would be the next prime minister. If Labour decides to dump the beleaguered Gordon Brown, the elder Miliband brother is rumored as a likely replacement. In 50 days, Medvedev is poised to become president of one of the world's most powerful countries. As for Obama, his once improbable run for the White House looks increasingly possible. If he makes it to the Oval Office, it won't be the end of the boomers' political dominance, but it just might be the beginning of the end. Ultimately, these new politicians may have a greater impact than those aging '68ers finally approaching their swan songs. They have made their entrances at a younger age, and so we will likely have them on the world stage for a very, very long time to come.

Join the Discussion