Upon winning the Nobel Peace Prize, President Obama declared, "We cannot accept the growing threat posed by climate change, which could forever damage the world that we pass on to our children."
The president understands the importance of his leadership in addressing problems that, if left unsolved, will harm our generation. Yet the first months of his term paint a troubling image for the future of young people — the "children" that politicians often implore Americans to think about.
Even if you have followed the health care debate closely, you probably have not heard a lot about what the ramifications of reform would be for young people. This is surprising, considering that as of 2007, 29 percent of people 19 to 29 years old were uninsured. One would think that in a debate over health insurance, we would get more attention.
In the past few months, however, Republicans successfully framed the discourse on health care around issues that affect seniors. By warning about "death panels" and railing against proposed Medicare reforms, the GOP has fomented opposition to health care partly by appealing to senior citizens.
Consider Michael Steele, chairman of the Republican National Committee. Late this summer he took to the airwaves and op-ed pages promoting a "Seniors' Health Care Bill of Rights" and vowing to fight any proposed cuts in Medicare. This is the same person who, when asked if he would consider cutting Social Security or Medicare during a run for Senate in 2006, told Tim Russert that "everything has to be on the table."
Abandoning principle matters little, however, since political ends are what Republicans seek. The GOP strategy is aimed at winning back seats in Congress in the 2010 midterms, and Republicans know that seniors matter far more than we do in determining election results.
According to the Census Bureau, 48.5 percent of Americans 18 to 24 years old voted in last year's presidential election. Americans 65 and older turned out at a rate of over 70 percent.
The disparity in turnout between young and old is even more pronounced during midterm elections. In 2002 and 2006, roughly 63 percent of citizens 65 or older voted. Under 50 percent of 18 to 24 year olds were even registered to vote in those elections, and in 2006 a meager 22.1 percent actually cast a ballot.
These statistics, and the fact that the 65 and over age group has almost ten million more people than the 18 to 24 year old bracket, make figuring out who to appeal to in 2010 a simple task. We lack the electoral clout to refocus the debate in Washington on issues that affect our future.
Many Democrats — including President Obama — are complicit in allowing the concerns of older Americans to dominate current debate at our expense. They are trying to prevent short-term electoral losses, even if the price could be high down the road.
Last week, President Obama reiterated his campaign pledge to end the military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy. He provided no timetable for this goal, however, allowing Congress to defer action. I doubt legislators gearing up for battles next year are eager to wade into this controversial issue.
Never mind that the President might send more troops to Afghanistan, and the military could probably use some of the 13,000 personnel discharged under "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" since its implementation. (LGBT issues generate less support with older Americans than with young adults, and seniors are more likely to vote next year. The safe bet is to wait on ending "Don't Ask, Don't Tell."
Meanwhile, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid seems unconcerned about putting off climate change legislation until next year. A climate change bill barely passed in the House of Representatives this summer; it's hard to believe the Senate will get anything done on this divisive issue during an election year.
Even Obama, not up for reelection until 2012, appears unwilling to put himself on the line for what he knows is a critical cause. Many diplomats are concerned that if the United States fails to act domestically, this year's U.N. Conference on Climate Change will not produce a meaningful international agreement essential to stemming global warming.
It will be our generation that suffers for failing to act on climate change, not leaders in Washington or older Americans. It is sad that our elected officials are unwilling to take political risks when confronted with an issue that requires powerful leadership to be solved.
Politicians are in the business of getting reelected, however, something that young people must recognize before assigning them all the blame. As long as we continue to exert little political power, voting in low numbers and lacking organization, politicians will gladly avoid the tough choices critical for our future in favor of the easy ones that assure them reelection.
Dan Davidson '11 is a political science and music concentrator from Atlanta, Georgia. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.