- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 25, 2009

NEW YORK | Add this to President Obama’s problems in selling his health care overhaul: A lot of the tech-savvy activists who helped put him in office are young, feeling indestructible and not all that into what they see as an “old folks” issue.

It’s a crucial gap in support, and one the White House may have to correct if Mr. Obama is to regain the momentum and get Congress to act on his top domestic priority.

Matt Singer, the 26-year-old founder of the liberal group Forward Montana and an activist in the health care trenches, has tried to engage young voters in the fight.

“Right now, we’re seeing a big conversation with seniors, but you’re not seeing the same mobilization among young people who are President Obama’s core constituency,” Mr. Singer said. “The age demographic most supportive of reform has not been engaged, and it makes me very nervous.”

Younger people are generally healthier and rely on less medical care, particularly young working men who make up the largest group that goes voluntarily without health insurance. They also are less likely to be as vocal at contentious town halls; many are either working or in school during the daytime forums.

Among senior citizens, the fear is palpable about Mr. Obama’s efforts, reflected in public polling that shows support falling for his proposals. Seniors worry that paying for the $1 trillion-plus, 10-year overhaul will mean cuts in Medicare benefits.

Talk of death panels and “pulling the plug on Grandma,” although discredited by some, has scared seniors. Sensing opportunity, the Republican National Committee announced a “Seniors’ Health Care Bill of Rights” on Monday that pledges to protect the elderly from any attempt to ration health care because of age.

Seniors preferred Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, by a 55 percent to 43 percent margin in last year’s presidential election - the only age group Mr. Obama lost.

Determined to energize his activist base, Mr. Obama talked up health care in an online town meeting last week with Organizing for America, the campaign operation reconstituted as the White House political arm. The operation has stepped up its push on health care, hosting thousands of events across every state and congressional district.

“It’s great to be here with all of you because it reminds me of how we got here in the first place,” Mr. Obama told the group in the meeting.

Said Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster who has researched the youth vote: “I think the White House thought they could mobilize their younger supporters just by saying, ‘Come out.’ But now they realize they have to run a real campaign.”

The question is whether it’s too late in the game for the 18-to-29-year-old voters who turned out in unprecedented numbers for Mr. Obama in 2008, giving him 66 percent of their vote to 32 percent for Mr. McCain. Polling shows that younger voters are the most supportive of health care reform - but also the most likely to be uninsured.

Heather Smith, executive director of the youth-oriented group Rock the Vote, said that the heated arguments that have dominated the debate recently - from the future of Medicare to “death panels” to claims of health care rationing - have seemed far removed from the lives of young people, whose health insurance worries primarily center on the cost and availability of coverage.

But critics also point to a failure of Mr. Obama’s message, saying that by focusing so intently on the concerns of senior citizens, the White House may have lost the attention of younger voters. They argue that the tools candidate Obama used so successfully to mobilize young voters in the campaign, such as community organizing and social networking, need to be reintroduced and used more aggressively in this debate.

Ms. Lake, the Democratic pollster, said the lack of involvement by young people in the health care push may hint at a bigger concern for the White House: Some so-called Obama “surge” voters, who voted for the first time in 2008 and are largely younger and nonwhite, may not be as motivated to get involved in his signature causes, including health care.

“They say, ‘I’m taking a break from politics, I’m uninformed about the system, I’m sick of Washington, I’m not going to help these people.’ It’s interesting that he hasn’t countered that disengagement,” she said.

To bring those voters back, Ms. Lake said Mr. Obama needs to draw on his own personal popularity and make the health care debate about him, rather than allow it to seem like a mishmash of legislation coming out of Capitol Hill.

“He hasn’t said yet, ‘This is my plan. The opponents are trying to take my plan away from me,’ ” the pollster said.

That’s the argument Amanda Mack, a 27-year-old organizer in South Dakota, said she makes when she urges young people to participate in the debate.

“During the campaign, young people got involved because they believed in Barack Obama, and health care is something he made a priority,” Miss Mack said. She added that she expected to see more activity around the issue in the fall, when colleges are back in session and younger families return from vacation.

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