Canada 2020

Obama’s courting the youth vote with Keystone politics

December 27, 2011

BY: Eugene Lang, Canada 2020.

President Barack Obama has punted a controversial decision on the Keystone XL pipeline — which would carry oilsands bitumen from northern Alberta to refineries in the southern United States — until after the 2012 presidential election, despite the payroll tax bill he signed Friday. In doing so, he has caved in to the Democratic Party “base.” Keystone is allegedly deeply unpopular with mainstream Democrats, from whom the president desperately needs votes in the 2012 presidential elections.

Obama is in for a tough election battle in 2012, given the poor state of the economy and his less-than-decisive governing record. Every vote, every state, and every demographic group will count bigtime in 2012. And for that reason, the president has decided that he needs to keep his base onside and do nothing to offend any of its various elements. That is the conventional wisdom in this country. And it is a highly simplistic take on the politics of the Keystone decision.

Appeasing the historic Democratic base — unionized workers, visible minorities, professionals, youth and women — is not the reason Obama has punted the Keystone decision. Some of these constituencies, notably labour, are in favour of moving forward on Keystone because it means thousands of jobs for them at a time of very high unemployment. Obama’s Keystone decision has in fact courted controversy with this element of his base.

The key to understanding the politics of Keystone in Washington is grasping the unprecedented importance of one particular slice of the Democratic base — the youth vote.

While youth 18 to 29 have disproportionately voted Democrat for years, Barack Obama broke new ground with them, capturing two thirds of these voters in the 2008 presidential election, as compared to just over 50 per cent for John Kerry four years earlier. Obama won the youth vote by 66 per cent to 32 per cent over John McCain, the largest margin of victory by any presidential candidate in any age group in nearly 40 years. By some accounts, it was the youth vote and the youth vote alone that propelled Obama to the presidency.

In the U.S. as in Canada, young people are far more environmentally conscious — maybe even naive or extreme in their views — than any other element of the Democratic party base.

Rightly or wrongly, as unrealistic as it may seem, many young Americans want the U.S. to take the off ramp from the oil economy. And fairly or unfairly, many of these same young Americans see Canada’s oilsands as the most environmentally offensive source of oil on the planet. They don’t care about “ethical oil,” Canada’s chosen slogan to sell the oilsands in America. For many American youth all oil is unethical, and oilsands oil is the most unethical of them all, due to its high carbon footprint relative to other sources. There are ethics and there are ethics.

By a combination of both policy inaction and the wrong messaging, Canada’s oil industry and governments have left a highly damaging impression of the oilsands with America’s youth. That is what Obama is contending with politically. Many in the oil industry, their apologists and some governments, seem incapable of grasping this.

In June of 2010, I was a presenter at an international conference at the Centre for American Progress in Washington — the most influential Democratic party think tank. Senior Democrats who had worked on the Obama campaign in 2008 — notably Ruy Teixeira, one of the leading Democratic pollsters and electoral analysts — emphasized that it was indeed the youth vote that clinched the presidency for Obama. When I asked if this vote could be counted upon to turn out in sufficient numbers for the president in 2012 — after his progressive image had inevitably been tarnished due to four years of hard governing choices — I was assured that the youth demographic would deliver in 2012 for the president and secure his re-election, all other things being equal. The real message in this remark was that it was the youth demographic that the Democratic party would do everything it could to deliver in 2012 because this constituency was seen as the linchpin to victory.

That is the essential insight into the politics of the Obama administration as it relates to oil generally and the Keystone decision specifically. It is the central reason why President Obama has decided to delay the approval of Keystone — the pipeline that would deliver to the U.S. what American youth see as the world’s dirtiest oil — which if approved before the election would have shaved a few crucial points off the youth vote that Obama needs desperately to win in 2012.

Eugene Lang is an award winning and best selling author, commentator, former federal political adviser and former Finance Canada official.

Ottawa Citizen, December 27, 2011.

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