Obama’s New Tone: “Inexcusable … Irresponsible”

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The most important part of the new Rolling Stone interview with Barack Obama is probably what the president forgot to say. At the end of the talk with Jann Wenner and Eric Bates, after some chit chat about iPods, Jay-Z and Lil Wayne, the president got up and left the Oval Office. But then he came back, apparently because he felt he had failed to drive home the reason for granting Rolling Stone the interview in the first place–the magazine’s vast audience of younger readers:

One closing remark that I want to make: It is inexcusable for any Democrat or progressive right now to stand on the sidelines in this midterm election. There may be complaints about us not having gotten certain things done, not fast enough, making certain legislative compromises. But right now, we’ve got a choice between a Republican Party that has moved to the right of George Bush and is looking to lock in the same policies that got us into these disasters in the first place, versus an administration that, with some admitted warts, has been the most successful administration in a generation in moving progressive agendas forward.

The idea that we’ve got a lack of enthusiasm in the Democratic base, that people are sitting on their hands complaining, is just irresponsible.

This is not the professorial Obama, all cool and detached. It is the president in full parenting mode, talking to his own base like a father talks to his 15-year-old son after three straight days of playing Halo instead of doing homework and chores. The Rolling Stone editors wrote in some description of Obama’s motions as he said these words, saying he “spoke with intensity and passion, repeatedly stabbing the air with his finger.”

This same fire was in evidence Monday, when Obama joined a conference call with college reporters. “You can’t sit it out,” Obama told the college reporters about the midterm elections. “You can’t suddenly just check in once every 10 years or so, on an exciting presidential election, and then not pay attention during big midterm elections where we’ve got a real big choice between Democrats and Republicans.” Again, not Professor Obama. Papa Obama.

For Democrats, his chiding tone could not come sooner. The great mass of first-time, unlikely, young and minority voters that changed the electorate in 2008 has been largely missing in action for the last year. Young people have not shown up in statewide elections in Virginia, Massachusetts or New Jersey, and pollsters say they are unlikely to show up in large numbers this fall. These same groups have been some of the hardest hit by the economic recession. They are once again disillusioned with politics, even as they continue to respect and admire the president.

As with any parent who tries to draw a line with his teenager, the president is taking a small risk: If young voters fail to abide the president’s castigation, he could have even less stature to ask for their help next time in 2012, when the President really needs their help. And unlike my metaphorical father, Obama doesn’t have the power to just take away the Xbox.