First 100 Days: Obama Fulfills Promises to Youth

You might not expect the under-30 crowd to queue up for a cap-and-trade hearing on Capitol Hill. But there they were, all last week, many wearing green shirts with environmental slogans, waiting patiently for hours to get seats for a public meeting on the American Clean Energy and Security Act. At times, fully one quarter of the room appeared to be in their 20s.

Whatever obstacles the young activists face in Congress, they believe they have a friend in the White House, where climate change and green energy legislation are top priorities. "We've been so impressed and pleased with what Obama has done for us in the first 100 days," says Jessy Tolkan, executive director of the Energy Action Coalition, a consortium of 50 youth organizations. Tolkan praises Obama's appointments of a White House climate czar and prominent environmentalists at the Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Energy. "We elected a president," says Tolkan. "We think we're going to be able to swing the votes we need to get this legislation passed." (It should be noted that some green activists were unhappy with the pick of Ken Salazar as interior secretary.)

Smart politicians naturally reward supporters, so Obama is no doubt closely watching young adults who were energized by his youthful, tech-smart campaign. When 57 percent of Iowans under age 30 who participated in the Democratic caucuses went for Obama, it put him over the top in that crucial first contest. In the general election, voters under 30 chose Obama over McCain by an astounding 66-32 margin.

Beyond green issues, the new administration had youth on its mind during its first 100 days when it included college affordability in the stimulus bill and signed an expansion of national service into law. And young people, who are more likely to be uninsured, are among the potential beneficiaries of health-care reform, which Obama hopes to enact this year.

On the quintessential youth issue, making higher education more affordable, Obama has already taken decisive action. Average tuition has risen faster than inflation in recent years, and government aid has not kept pace. In 2008, Money magazine reported that the amount families pay for college is up 439 percent since 1982. With more parents out of work and students losing their part-time jobs, Obama sought to ensure that the economic downturn would not prevent students from attending college—by putting $8.5 billion for each of the next two years (a more than 50 percent increase in annual spending) into the Pell Grant program. "The economic recovery package demonstrated a commitment to college access issues," says Christine Lindstrom, director of the U.S. PIRG higher-education program.

Obama has also asked Congress to raise the maximum Pell Grant amount again and make the normally unpredictable grant levels rise annually with inflation. The catch: to pay for it, Obama wants to eliminate subsidies to student-lending companies. The lenders have spent years building relationships on the Hill in case of just such a battle. Observers say Obama and congressional Democratic leaders may try to use the budget reconciliation process to avoid blocks on the subsidy proposal by Sen. Ben Nelson, a Nebraska Democrat, and others who want to protect lenders in their home states. On Friday, Obama met with a family struggling to pay for college, and gave a speech to rachet-up pressure on wavering legislators. "The banks and lenders ... are gearing up for a battle," the president said, "and so am I."

The SERVE Act, another major youth initiative, was signed into law by Obama on April 21. It fulfills Obama's campaign pledge to dramatically expand opportunities for young people who want to participate in community service and earn money for college or graduate school. Americorps, the domestic Peace Corps program first established by President Clinton, will be expanded from 75,000 to 250,000 annual slots. And even those young environmental activists got their special share: there will be a new "clean energy corps" that will provide thousands of service opportunities to work on energy-efficiency projects such as weatherizing low-income homes.

One issue of importance to many youth activists that Obama hasn't addressed yet: voting rights. Every election shows young people are more likely to be disenfranchised by the often inscrutable laws governing registration and voting in the states. Young workers and college students, who often move frequently, are especially vulnerable to registration snafus. Obama's votes in the Senate and statements on the campaign trail are signs that he will support election reform if bills to ease registration are proposed, says Sujatha Jahagirdar, program director of the Student PIRGs' New Voters Project.

But even the famously conciliatory Obama has not won over the one third of young people who voted against him. Young Republicans say they fear his national-service program may favor left-leaning charities and that his new domestic spending is simply too expensive. They frame deficit spending as a generational issue. "He's taken the very people who put him in office and thrown them under the bus," says Charlie Smith, chairman of the College Republicans. "He's strapped trillions of dollars in new spending and new debt to this generation."

It seems that is the one thing young liberals and conservatives do agree on: they all expect to live a lot longer, and, whether it is spending or global warming, to bear the consequences of decisions made today.