By Cord Jefferson
In Bill Clinton's now infamous 1994 introduction to the youth of America, he took center stage at a Viacom-sponsored young-voter forum and was asked if he wore boxers or briefs and if, were he gifted a second chance, he would inhale pot. Today, at an event hosted by MTV's Sway Calloway and BET's April Woodard, President Barack Obama faced a nearly identical forum. But his first question came from a Texas Republican named Cynthia, who chastised his attempts at bipartisanship and then asked him how he would "improve the dialogue" between Democrats and Republicans.
Chalk it up to MTV, BET and CMT — the co-sponsors of "A Conversation With President Obama" — learning from the casting mistakes of 1994. Or perhaps the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression has hammered some sobriety into America's youth. Either way, today, the sophomoric moments were minimal, and the president spoke real policy with 225 18- to 29-year-olds.
As expected, the audience was diverse in gender and race, with headscarves and turbans liberally dotting the crowd. And, as was made clear immediately, there were a number of conservatives in attendance. After Cynthia’s question, a young man named Adam Hunter told the president, "When you were first elected, it seemed as though the sky was falling in terms of the economy. There was a bailout that you supported; there was stimulus that added to our deficit. But yet it seems as though our unemployment rate still rises — you said it wasn't going to go past 8 percent; now it's at 9.4 percent. … So my question to you is, why should we still support you going forward with your monetary and economic policies?"
In the days leading up to the town hall, conservative pundits had questioned the event's validity, assuming the White House or MTV would stack the deck in Obama's favor with Democrats out to toss softballs. As it turned out, however, even those in attendance who admitted to voting for the president in 2008 were quick to express displeasure.
Bridget Todd, an English professor at Howard University, told Obama that she'd voted for him based on his "alleged commitment" to equal rights for gays. "My question is, you as the president can sort of have an executive order that ends it once and for all," she said, "as Harry Truman did for the integration of the military in '48. So I wonder, why don't you do that if this is a policy that you're committed to ending?"
Never during the event did Obama seem fearful of diving into specific policy points with the young people. To wit, he told Todd, "[T]he difference between my position right now and Harry Truman's was that Congress explicitly passed a law that took away the power of the executive branch to end this policy unilaterally. So this is not a situation in which with a stroke of a pen I can simply end the policy."
It was a notable answer in the wake of an incident this week in which the president's senior adviser, Valerie Jarrett, said that a gay teen who committed suicide had made a "lifestyle choice." Jarrett has since apologized.
Throughout the town hall, the hosts asked Twitter users to relay "their greatest hopes" and "their greatest fears." When one person responded, "My greatest fear is that Obama will be re-elected," and another said he was afraid the U.S. was slipping into communism, the president laughed before quickly adding, "This is an example of how our political rhetoric gets spun up. The Internet and Twitter and all these things are very powerful, but it also means sometimes that instead of having a dialogue, we just start calling folks — calling each other names. … That's something I think we've got to avoid."
The official town hall ended after an hour, but the president stayed for about 10 minutes after the cameras stopped rolling to move about the audience and shake hands. Before he exited, he picked up an errant microphone and professed sadness at not being asked what his greatest hopes and fears were. "What gives me hope is all of you," he said. "And what makes me afraid is that because these are big, complicated issues, people get discouraged when they don't get solved right away. I have no doubt that America will remain the best country on earth, but you have to be involved. Regardless of whether you found anything I've said persuasive, I need you to vote on Nov. 2."
Outside the studio, Kayla Webb, a 19-year-old from Baltimore, said she enjoyed the event, save for the clearly pre-screened questions. "I would have liked to have [Obama] actually choose the people to ask questions," she said. "I don't think we got a broad selection of different issues." Besides health care reform, immigration, gay rights and the economy, topics varied from black incarceration rates to access to education.
Still, Tiffany Palmer, 24, and from Birmingham, Ala., agreed that there should have been more spontaneity to the questions. "I felt like it was amazing, but it was very formal and rehearsed," she said. "I understand what they were trying to do, but I would have liked to see him be a little caught off guard, honestly."
Cord Jefferson is a staff writer at The Root. Follow him on Twitter.