Even if any kid could be president, few want the job
America's young people are less interested in politics than wereearlier generations, studies show.
Paul Orfanos has a dream.
Leaning back from a styrofoam plate of Japanese stir-fry and sushi, he smiles and declares, "I want to fix the world."
Yes, unlike the vast majority of American teenagers, Paul wants to be president of the United States.
Gathered at a cluster of food-court tables in a Boston mall, his friends gently razz him for his idealism. They either have no interest in politics, or they say being president would mean giving up too much privacy. The lone young woman in the bunch says even if she wanted to be president, it would be "almost impossible" to get elected because of gender stereotypes.
To some who track the health of American democracy, the low number of teens who want to be president (17 percent according to a recent ABC News poll) reflects a growing cynicism about politics. Behind that statistic they see a cultural shift in the nation - fewer people who vote or even talk politics over dinner, and an eroding emphasis on public service.
But not everyone is ready to set off the alarm bells. Efforts are under way to engage young people more in politics, and teens' wide array of interests can make up for the prevailing sense that politics is irrelevant.
Indeed, teens' lack of aspiration when it comes to the presidency is nothing new, says Gordon Hoxie, founder of the Center for the Study of the Presidency in New York. His center was founded about 30 years ago largely because President Eisenhower was concerned with young people's lack of desire to go into public service and the presidency.
But interest in public service and politics ebbs and flows, says Mr. Hoxie. "We've always had idealism related to the president. I think that will return."
Teenagers' interest in politics has been declining steadily since the late 1960s, according to researchers at the University of California at Los Angeles. In their nationwide study of first-year college students, they found that 25.9 percent think it is very important or essential to keep up with political affairs, down from a peak of 57.8 percent in 1966. Only 14 percent say they frequently discuss politics.
A generational shift has focused attention "toward the local - 'What is happening around me?' - rather than national or international," says Doris Graber, a political scientist at the University of Illinois in Chicago. But "there are a lot of new ways to participate now," she adds, and if you look beyond the traditional measures, teens' participation in civic life is growing.
Still, the steady drumbeat of scandal that has pounded America since Watergate has turned off many people when it comes to politics, says Curtis Gans, director of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate in Washington. He also cites a decline in the quality of education, especially in the area of citizenship; an increase in self-seeking consumerism; and more families that don't even talk about politics.
Teenagers say no to the top job for a variety of reasons.
Some, like Ben Pellerin in Rapid City, S.D., say the job requires "too much responsibility." Soccer and skateboarding, not politics, are the main interests for this ninth grader. Andres Olaya, another young teen, says he wouldn't want to have to make so many decisions that would disappoint people or invite criticism.
And, not surprisingly, maintaining individuality is a big concern. "If you were president, you couldn't be yourself," says Jay Gallant, a friend of Paul's who doesn't share his aspirations.
"In eighth grade, I wanted to be president," says Katie Meadows, a high school junior. But that was before she realized "how much you don't have your own life."
The recent poll of 12- to 17-year-olds also found that 62 percent believed they could be president if they wanted to. But Katie and two friends browsing with her at Newbury Comics in Boston's Back Bay didn't see that possibility for themselves. Not enough money, not the right set of leadership skills, they said.
"It takes a certain kind of kid," one who seeks leadership roles from the start, says Matt Swanson. But the three agree that one guy they know could very well end up in the Oval Office someday. He was president of the student body and may have even done an internship at the White House, they say. But he "never did kid stuff," says Kate Neil. And that's a trade-off most kids don't want to make.
Programs designed to promote civic participation occasionally put kids on a path they might not otherwise have imagined. That happens often at Girls Nation, which sends girls elected from state groups to Washington to learn about national politics firsthand. According to the ABC poll, girls' desire to become president slightly outpaces boys'.
"Girls today are really feisty," says Kenya Ostermeier, youth-programs coordinator for the group whose counterpart, Boys Nation, got a certain kid named Bill fired up about a political career in 1963.
Business, not politics
Dennis Rogers, a youth coordinator for the National Coalition on Black Voter Participation in Washington, hasn't come across any presidential aspirants. Many of the young people he works with "are frustrated with the political process," he says. But at a town hall meeting that brought together junior high school students and elected officials in Indianapolis, he says he saw "the light go off that 'these officials affect my life.' "
Mr. Rogers understands why many young African-Americans "see themselves in leadership roles [outside] ... the political arena." A number want to go into business, for instance, because they see young black executives in the hip-hop and fashion industries.
Even though the "mythical-figure" aspect of the presidency is in decline, with all the Hollywood portrayals in recent years, Rogers sees a need for "a healthy respect for the office, in addition to for the person."
Many teens agree, and say the impeachment controversy has not lowered their esteem for the presidency.
In fact, presidents should have more power, says Paul. Among the problems he'd try to "fix" as president is the amorphous but increasingly evident fact that "nobody's friendly anymore." To do something about that, he'd definitely need a lot of authority.