Back in the 1990s, Head & Shoulders shampoo's motto was "you never get a second chance to make a first impression." Little did we know it would turn into a political aphorism in the 21st century.
Consider a new Pew poll finding that "over the course of 2009 the Democratic Party's advantage among Millennials in party affiliation weakened considerably from its high point in 2008." This graph tells the story:
These are "first impression" voters -- and this was always the danger with the Obama phenomenon.
Here we had a little-known senator who served as a blank screen on which people project their hopes and dreams -- a presidential candidate who raised the expectations of millions of first-time voters by convincing them they should discard their reflexive cynicism and believe in hope and change.
The danger was always that in failing to fulfill such first impressions, Obama would sow an even deeper cynicism than ever before. To convince people to drop their old attitudes for the sake of hope, and then to turn around and betray that hope -- it would create a "fool me once, shame on you -- fool me twice, shame on me" kind of anger and alienation.
Which, of course, is exactly what is likely happening. It's not juvenile impatience - it's not that Obama hasn't in one year solved the massive economic, health care, energy and foreign policy problems that will take years to fix. It's understandable disgust with the fact that in many ways, Obama hasn't even made a serious attempt to start fixing those problems.
As much as the national media makes voters out to be stupid, they aren't. They see an administration teeming with Wall Streeters and corrupt Clinton-era hacks legislating on behalf of banks and health insurance companies. They see a president who calls Goldman Sachs' CEO a "savvy businessman," cuts deals with the drug companies, and refuses to champion as minimal an idea as the public option -- all while engaging in the overtly deceitful practice of Villain Rotation, as Glenn Greenwald astutely calls it. In short, they see in the politician who told them not to be cynical the very politician archetype that originally made them cynical in the first place.
It's no coincidence, then, that as this Obama erosion among young voters happens, a simultaneous spurt in support from the same demographic is beginning to benefit the right. As the CPAC conference teems with college kids, the Wall Street Journal details how young political novices are flocking to Tea Party activism.
I don't think we're yet at the point of seeing a full-on structural shift of young voters away from progressivism, Obama and the Democratic Party. But I do believe that's the danger -- and that the only way to avoid it is for Democrats to start delivering on the basic promises they made to those first-time voters in 2008. As I said to start, they won't have a second chance to make a first impression -- and if they don't come through now, they could end up shifting a generation's worth of voters in the wrong direction.