Can Obama re-engage the disengaged?

October 29, 2006 | By Ruben Navarrette Jr.

Eric Liu is an accomplished, interesting and hard-charging member of Generation X. The 38-year-old writer graduated from Yale University and Harvard Law School, wrote three books, started a magazine and worked in the Clinton White House as a speechwriter and domestic policy adviser—and he was just getting warmed up.

Now based in Seattle, Liu’s most recent book, “Guiding Lights,” is about mentors and coaches and the impact they have on their apprentices. He’s also working on a project that he hopes will “redefine patriotism and return us to core, moral and ethical principles of what we owe one another” as members of society.

When Liu isn’t busy considering all that, he’s thinking about how he’d love to see another accomplished, interesting, hard-charging member of his generation—by the name of Barack Obama—quit flirting with the idea of running for president and (to borrow a marketing slogan familiar to our generation) just do it.

According to sociologists Neil Howe and William Strauss, who have written extensively about generations, Generation X includes anyone born from 1961 to 1981. Obama was born on Aug. 4, 1961. So he’s an Xer.

“I’m firmly of the belief that (Obama) should run,” Liu told me. “I don’t know if he’d win, but I think he should run. I think it’s almost a no-lose proposition for him to run.”

I’ll buy that. Obama is an appealing politician with big ideas and a knack for seeking consensus. I know he’s only just arrived on the national scene, but experience is only one ingredient in the recipe for what makes a good leader. It’s goofy for political observers in Washington to say that Obama should slow down, pay his dues, wander the Senate for a few years, and maybe chair a committee.

Why not? Look how well that strategy worked for Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., who has been in the Senate since 1985 and who has spent nearly 20 years on the Foreign Relations Committee. Meanwhile, the last Democrat to be dismissed by the experts as not having the experience to be president because he was governor of a small state—Arkansas—won two terms.

Liu believes that not only does Obama not have much to gain by waiting, he might actually lose out if he waits too long.

“In my book,” Liu said, “the longer Obama stays in the Senate, the less valuable he becomes.”

For Liu, it harkens back to a major characteristic of this generation: a tendency to circumvent clogged avenues and find another way to reach one’s goal.

“This is the bypass generation,” Liu said. “People in our cohort have learned to embrace politics by other means. There are a lot of people in Generation X who just decided that traditional politics was too broken, too boring, too irrelevant and that they needed to channel their energy, passion, idealism in other directions.”

Obama’s challenge is to bring them back into the fold. He might do just that.

Consider Obama’s recent appearance on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” The day after, all my media colleagues wanted to talk about was Obama’s admission that he’s thinking about running for president in 2008. The real question is what Obama would bring to the table should he run.

Moderator Tim Russert asked Obama about a passage in his new book where the senator laments that—whenever baby boomers lock horns—“you feel like these are fights that were taking place back in dorm rooms in the ‘60s.” Obama responded that, yes, he believed that many of our political arguments—over civil rights, abortion rights, foreign policy—were “shaped by the ‘60s and . . . the (influence of) baby boomers.”

Hallelujah. Someone finally said it. I mean, does the country really need another debate over Vietnam?

Obama also said that while baby boomers like to argue the benefits of big government versus small government, “the current generation is more interested in smart government”—that is, just enough government to get the job done but with a willingness to try a market solution if that makes sense.

It’s one reason that Liu thinks Obama is uniquely positioned to do more than simply run a campaign—that he can help start a movement.

“I look at someone like Barack Obama,” Liu said, “and I think here is a person who can tell a story about the original purposes of American politics that will make people stop and think and hear it again for the first time.”

I don’t know about you, but that’s one story I can’t wait to hear.


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