Last year Stephanie Parker ‘11 decided to make a change and go full-throttle for Barack Obama. That meant literally dropping everything and putting her life on hold to campaign for the freshman Illinois senator who promised to transform politics in Washington.
Parker began the campaign by registering voters and then moved up in the ranks of Stanford’s chapter of Students for Barack Obama, eventually managing the entire database of Obama campaigners on campus. For more than a quarter, it was non-stop voter registration drives, reminding people to mail in their absentee ballots and weekend road trips to Nevada. It was all Obama, all the time.
For Parker, it was worth it. On election night 2008, she, along with a cohort of 130 other Stanford students, were canvassing for the soon-to-be president in Nevada. When the results rushed in that night and Barack Obama was declared the 44th president of the United States, it was joyous mayhem in Las Vegas.
“We ran around the casino celebrating like it was 1999!” Parker said. “It was really an awesome and emotional feeling.”
Other students on the campaign trail got caught up in the historic election results as well.
“I am here because I believe in Obama,” Michael Albada ‘11, who has written for The Daily, told The Daily on election night. Like Parker, he was in Nevada campaigning for Obama. “I think he is a political messiah. He is the man our generation needs.”
And Stanford overwhelmingly agreed with Albada. In 2008, Obama fever swept through campus. There were rallies in White Plaza, debate-watching parties at Old Union and a sea of Barack Obama bumper stickers in student parking lots. In February 2008, the official Facebook group for Stanford Obama supporters had over 900 members. On election day, Barack Obama clinched 90 percent of the Stanford vote of the nearly 1000 students who cast their ballots at the GCC according to an exit poll conducted by The Daily. It was Obamania.
That was a year ago.
Now, the once white-hot excitement over Obama’s candidacy is more lukewarm. In many cases, the resounding cry of “Yes We Can” has devolved into a faint murmur.
“The enthusiasm is just not there now,” Parker said. “The support for the president has definitely decreased. Students like him as a person, but they’re very disappointed in the job he’s done.”
Nationally, Obama’s approval rating has dipped below 50 percent and Democrats have been on the defensive in the last few weeks trying to defend many of Obama’s policy initiatives.
Hirav Gandhi ‘10, a member of the Stanford Conservative Society, is unsurprised by Obama’s plummeting national approval numbers but thinks Stanford’s political climate isn’t representative of national sentiment.
“I personally think that the worst that you get on campus — aside from groups on the extreme left or right — is general indifference,” Gandhi said. “People think, yeah, Obama had a rough year. That’s definitely a change in student perception of Obama from the enamored adoration he got last year.”
While enthusiasm for the 44th president has petered off in many circles, for the die-hard Obama fans, the enthusiasm gap isn’t totally unexpected.
Zev Karlin-Neumann ‘11 went into the campaign realizing that while Obama was a compelling candidate, he was battling structural issues from the outset and could only deliver so much.
A little over a year ago, Karlin-Neumann lived and breathed Obama. He canvassed swing districts, registered voters, and debated for the Illinois senator. He was one of the 130 students who road-tripped to Nevada every other weekend throughout the campaign. Karlin-Neumann has noticed that the Obama fervor has leveled off since the campaign days.
“I saw a friend yesterday who was one of the people I had road-tripped with a few times during the campaign and he was commenting on this freeze of federal spending,” Karlin-Neumann said. “He said something like ‘Well, what would you expect from this president, it’s been a disappointing year.’ And it made me kind of sad because he was someone who was putting a lot of effort into the campaign a year ago. I think there has been a letdown in a number of quarters, without a doubt.”
Karlin-Neumann, a history and political science double major, worked in the Senate in Stanford in Washington last quarter and said that even as someone who is plugged into politics, it is difficult to stay on top of the policy issues post-campaign. That disconnect sparks cynicism, he said.
“A campaign is just more exciting,” he said. “People can grasp a horserace more easily — who’s up and who’s down. Is this going to be the speech that decides the campaign? Getting into the intricacies of the issues is hard to understand. People tune out.”
Parker agreed with Karlin-Neumann that when you’re out of the heat of a campaign, problem sets and schoolwork trump politics.
“Traditionally on college campuses, you don’t see the same level of political engagement unless there is something tangible that can be fulfilled — watching the news, signing petitions,” Parker said. “It hasn’t translated into a change. And students are more focused on the job hunt.”
But for Tommy Schultz ‘11, president of the Stanford Conservative Society, Obama’s declining popularity isn’t about the campaign being over. It’s about students waking up to the issues.
“Plenty of Stanford students got caught up in the hope of his words have been disappointed with the reality of his actions,” Schultz said in an e-mail to The Daily. “We have members who were skeptical all along, but I can’t tell you how many students I’ve talked to who regret succumbing to what was once cool and now remove any evidence of support from their Facebook [profile] or car bumper.”
During the campaign, the ground floor of The Axe and Palm and Old Union overflowed with students transfixed in front of TV screens watching Republican candidate John McCain and Obama battle it out on national television.
Fast forward a year, to Obama’s State of the Union address Wednesday night. The couches in Old Union that used to be jam-packed with people held a smattering of lounging students, many of whom were focused more on their homework than on Obama’s words. Gone was the hushed anticipation, the exclamatory whoops, cheers and high fives that characterized last fall’s election cycle.
“The State of the Union isn’t the same adrenaline rush as a debate,” Parker said.
There was a fairly complacent reception to the speech — which focused largely on spurring job growth and getting the economy back on track — and most people thought that it wasn’t a rousing address, but it got the job done.
“Obama made some good points and was very eloquent,” said Annissa Chitour ‘13. “He definitely called out Congress and said to get something done.”
“I would have liked to hear more about healthcare, however,” she continued. “But I understand that he had to focus on the economy and jobs.”
Sarah Flamm ‘11 had similar reactions to the speech and said that while this was not an oratory landmark, Obama focused on the issues and struck a populist note that would resonate with viewers.
“I liked that he was so personable,” Flamm said. “Obama always comes in, organizes and says things are going to be O.K.”
That’s what students like Parker and Karlin-Neumann — people who invested their GPAs, sleep schedules and weekends in the president — are banking on. Among the students who canvassed for Obama, there remains a stand-by-your man norm. They haven’t lost confidence in Obama just yet.
“Obama keeps on running into so many setbacks and problems, but if anyone can think of the best way to get through this situation, it’s him,” Parker said. “Overall, I still trust him and believe in him.”