Still hoping for change | Politics | Chicago Reader

Still hoping for change 

Four years later, five Chicagoans reflect on the president they helped elect

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Underemployed recent college grad hopes for environmental change

Who are the youth voters? It might be the most imaginary political demographic. Unlike, say, Latinos—another important group in this year's election—there's little in the way of shared cultural background, common language, or lived experience to bind the youth bloc. Young voters may be black or white, they may be rich or poor, but mostly they're just not very old yet.

Is Austin Millet a "youth voter"?

When Barack Obama ran for president the first time round, he captured the imaginations of many of the country's young voters, who in 2008 were a hot political commodity in the way that "soccer moms" had been in years prior. Millet, who's now 24, voted for Obama then, though he was, and remains, measured in his support. He didn't feel as inflamed about the Illinois senator as did many of his peers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he graduated in 2010.

"There was a real sense that he was paying attention" to the attitudes of young people, Millet recalls. He thought the future president gave off a "leadership vibe," which he'd noticed before Obama declared his intention to seek the presidency—Millet grew up in suburban Hinsdale, so the senator was his senator. Vibe or no, he wasn't so impressed with Obama's rhetoric. "You get the sense that when you start having to become attractive to a huge portion of the population, almost 50 percent, you're gonna have to boil some of your issues down."

Underemployed recent college grad hopes for environmental change
  • Austin Millet believes the president's initiatives must be bigger than Millet’s own needs.
  • Andrea Bauer

Others on Millet's campus, too, fell short of being Obamaniacs; he says he detected among some of his peers a "reactionary cynicism" elicited by the upstart candidate. Millet's roommate was from southern Illinois and "hated" Obama. Why? "He'd say, well, he hasn't done anything for Illinois"—nothin' for nobody, in other words, who didn't live in Chicago. "It was just a knee-jerk kind of reaction," Millet says—though Millet's roommate, in his embrace of that particular flavor of he-doesn't-care-about-us rhetoric, may well have been the Ghost of Presidential Politics Future.

"I would like for my issues to be addressed but I think they're comparatively less important."

Even a cynic might grant college students some enthusiasm about a rock-star presidential candidate: for his classmates on the U. of I. campus, 2008 was "a little early for the job-market thing," Millet says. The 2012 election hits them closer to where they live. In theory it hits Millet, too, though he's not making too many links between the nation's story and his own. After majoring in English, he moved back to the Chicago area in search of a job. He hoped to do some sort of writing, but ended up in what he calls "manual labor" jobs: moving pianos and digging ditches. He also worked at a bar. For a while, he wrote marketing materials for a life coach.

A year after graduating Millet found a job teaching English abroad. He spent a year in Georgia, which fed an interest in Soviet and post-Soviet history and helped him refine his career goals. The poverty he saw there, Millet says, "made me want to actually spend my time doing more community outreach, and devote myself to a good cause." He'd like to do public relations for an environmental nonprofit.

The goal has yet to turn into a job. Millet returned from Georgia in June, and this fall he's working an unpaid internship at the Center for Neighborhood Technology, which promotes urban sustainability. It's given him a chance to meet people in an industry he'd like to work in, but when the internship ends his plans aren't clear. "It might be back to moving pianos, it might be back to working in a bar," he says. "I hope that there's a fair amount of work for those who want to do it."

What interest Millet has in the presidential race mostly relates to environmental issues. He appreciates the president's investments in green technology, and when Mitt Romney affirmed his interest in coal in the first debate—"I like coal," is what he said—it affirmed Millet's interest in Barack Obama. His friends aren't terribly concerned with presidential politics. He says they don't talk about it much, partly out of respect for the one or two of them who won't be voting for Obama, and partly because there's such a powerful expectation of shared values here in Obama country. "It's just assumed in the city that you're going to vote for Obama," Millet says. "It's just a civic duty at this point."

If Millet's less than enthusiastic about Obama, it might be because he sees Obama returning the favor—not that he minds. Millet thinks "youth" issues, like access to education, have "moved to more of a margin. Because it is a marginal issue, I think. Health care is much more important. Defense is much more important. I would like for my issues to be addressed but I think they're comparatively less important."

So what are your issues? I ask.

"My issues are lack of employment," Millet says. "And I really don't think the government can do anything to address that, so I don't expect it."

Sam Worley

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