During his State of the Union address, President Obama framed a populist message for economically strapped middle-class American families, contrasting his policies with those of the Republican Party, which he portrayed as catering exclusively to the mega-wealthy.
Appealing to middle-income families is indeed smart politics. But in order to win reelection in November, Obama must also recapture the disenchanted youth vote — which he can do by speaking out more forcefully on the real issues of debt and rising tuition costs afflicting younger voters.
A historic 51 percent of young voters showed up at the polls in 2008, with two-thirds of them pulling the lever for Obama. In only two earlier presidential contests did a greater share of 18-29 year olds vote in a general election.
To win young voters back, Obama must start to reconnect now. Their turnout this fall will make or break his prospects for a second term.
Right now, young voters are not as active as they were in the 2008 campaign. In Iowa's caucus, participation fell a third from 2008 level to just 3 percent. New Hampshire youth turnout declined from 43 to 15 percent.
The youth vote in South Carolina shrunk by more the half compared to that of 2008. The lack of a competitive primary on the Democratic side may explain much of the fall-off, since younger voters are more likely to lean toward the Democrats. But while the Republicans are not attracting the youth vote as much as they would like, they are still the only candidates aggressively campaigning on college campuses today, and the scant turnout in the GOP contests reflects troubling youth apathy overall.
For President Obama, winning the youth vote this cycle will be no slam dunk. The Obama of 2008 could electrify a college audience with the rousing eloquence of "Yes, We Can." His mere appearance would generate huge crowds. But four years later, with an economy that's not noticeably improved for America's youth, Obama runs the risk of alienating young voters if he relies solely on style rather than substance.
Rather, young voters have to be the underpinning of a prolonged strategy of direct engagement on economic issues. Trying to ward off a sour economy, millennials are looking for candidates to address their concerns, namely college tuition hikes, financial aid cutbacks and pervasive fear about this generation's inherited (and growing) debt.
On the heels of his annual address to Congress, the president has declared a bold vision of a more equitable economy. He will need young people's support of this view to be victorious in November. And so he in addition to the Republican primary campaigns — should bring the twenty-something demographic to the foreground now.
Win McNamee/Getty Images: President Obama delivers his State of the Union speech on Tuesday.