Thursday, September 10, 2009

Trust a President Under 50? -- Sept. 10, 2009 column

Note to readers: An earlier version incorrectly said President Obama is the first president born after the 1946 to 1964 baby boom. MM


In the spirit of Woodstock and the return of Beatlemania, here’s another blast from the past: “Don’t trust anybody over 30!”

That rallying cry from the 1960s has gotten a 21st century makeover. Four decades later, many baby boomers and their elders don’t trust a president who’s under 50 or his youthful White House aides.

This generation gap is a problem for President Obama if he’s to pass health-care reform. The president born near the end of the baby boom of 1946 to 1964 must persuade older boomers to trust him.

The torch has been passed to a new generation, to borrow John F. Kennedy’s famous line, and to a president born more than six months after JFK uttered those words at his inauguration.

The first baby boomers turned 60 three years ago; Obama celebrated 48 last month. Unfortunately, the angriest voices from summer town halls were those of aging white male baby boomers.

To be sure, being a certain age guarantees a politician nothing. Baby-boomer presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton had many foes in their generation.

But Obama was never the first choice of voters over 50. In the primaries, Hillary Clinton was the favorite of older Democrats. In the November election, voters over 60 were the only age group that chose John McCain over Obama.

With most congressional Republicans opposing reform, Obama desperately needs Democrats to believe they won’t be throwing away their careers if they support it. Seniors vote and will turn out for next year’s midterm elections.

Health-care reform will affect everyone as no other legislation has in decades. People are asking, what’s in it for me and what will it cost me?

Seniors worry that Obama’s oft-repeated promise to pay for reform without adding one dime to the federal deficit inevitably will result in cuts to Medicare benefits.

In his address to Congress and the nation Wednesday night, Obama spoke to seniors directly.

“Don't pay attention to those scary stories about how your benefits will be cut,” he declared. “I will protect Medicare.”

Obama set to rest once more the spurious claim that reform will authorize death panels. He called Medicare “a sacred trust that must be passed down from one generation to the next,” and reassured seniors “not a dollar of the Medicare trust fund will be used to pay for this plan.”

So far, so good.

But he also promised to eliminate hundreds of billions of dollars in waste, fraud and “unwarranted subsidies in Medicare that go to insurance companies.” His plan also would create an independent medical commission to identify more waste. His broad overview left many questions to be answered in coming months.

If someone is disposed to trust the president and government, such uncertainty is tolerable. But critics have spent months ginning up insecurity with false claims and scare tactics.

Interestingly, the under-30 crowd, strongest supporters of Obama, have not rallied around health-care reform. Nobody ever expects to need health care, and the idea that everybody would be required to purchase health insurance is unpopular with invincible youth.

Obama now believes that the system won’t work unless everybody participates, a shift since the primaries.

History tells us that seniors do have the power to kill reform. Twenty years ago, the burning issue were changes in Medicare that provided more coverage but were paid for with higher Medicare premiums.

In what became a pivotal scene in August 1989, angry seniors surrounded Rep. Dan Rosentowski, D-Ill., chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, as he left a town hall meeting. Shouting demonstrators blocked his car from leaving.

“These people don’t understand what the government is trying to do for them,” a frustrated Rostenkowski complained.

Maybe so, but Congress subsequently repealed the unpopular measure.

Obama insists that his plan will provide Medicare recipients with all their promised benefits and may even save money for some with high out-of-pocket prescription costs.

“That’s what this plan will do for you,” the president said.

Obama has laid out his intentions. If he follows through and keeps the faith, he may yet convince skeptical seniors to trust a president under 50.

(c) 2009 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.


  1. Love your blog, Marsha. Relevantly, another variable to be factored into this discussion: Generation Jones (born 1954-1965, between the Boomers and Generation X). Obama, and any of his top appointees are GenJonesers.

    Google Generation Jones, and you’ll see it’s gotten a ton of media attention, and many top commentators from many top publications and networks (Washington Post, Time magazine, NBC, Newsweek, ABC, etc.) now specifically use this term. In fact, the Associated Press' annual Trend Report forecast the Rise of Generation Jones as the #1 trend of 2009. Here's a page with a good overview of recent media interest in GenJones:

    It is important to distinguish between the post-WWII demographic boom in births vs. the cultural generations born during that era. Generations are a function of the common formative experiences of its members, not the fertility rates of its parents. Many experts now believe it breaks down more or less this way:

    DEMOGRAPHIC boom in babies: 1946-1964
    Baby Boom GENERATION: 1942-1953
    Generation Jones: 1954-1965
    Generation X: 1966-1978