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Ellis Henican: Barack Obama wants his MTV

Barack Obama, shown here campaigning at a Wisconsin

Barack Obama, shown here campaigning at a Wisconsin high school last month, is set to appear on MTV on Thursday. Credit: Getty Images

Blame Bill Clinton.

He was the one who made MTV the venue of choice for presidents trying to connect with young voters. That day in 1994, the saxophonist-in-chief was asked a simple question: “Boxers or briefs?” He gave a simple answer: “Briefs, mostly.” And the presidency has never been quite the same.

On Thursday, Barack Obama will conduct his own youth forum on MTV, which will also be broadcast live on BET and CMT. Too bad the underwear question has been retired. Obama has far better abs than Clinton ever did. But in time for the 2010 midterm elections, can he connect with young people as well?

It’s strange to be even asking that.

In the presidential race of 2008, Obama was a star with young voters, building a fan base far surpassing that of any video star’s. But two years later, the fans are clearly drifting. Obama and the Democrats are eager to bring them home fast. Sure, the kids still remember his music.

Sure, they still connect with his words. But somehow or another, they have to be reminded of the feelings they and he shared.

After two years of actually governing — two wars still raging, jobs still hard to find, an ugly tone still pervading in Washington — hope and change don’t seem nearly as imminent anymore.

If not the Democrats, who? What do Republicans have to offer to young people this year? I mean beside a bunch of tea parties and a Delaware Senate candidate who dabbled in witchcraft but says she isn’t a witch anymore.

In the end, it may not matter as much as either party expects.

Despite their energy and snappy questions on cable TV, young people are notoriously lackadaisical about actually getting themselves to the polls.

Even in a change-focused election like 2008, young voters didn’t turn out nearly in the numbers that older voters did. And there isn’t much buzz on campus yet. That will take more than a nicely crafted young-voter Q-and-A. It’ll take a question and an answer that go unexpectedly viral, a term that didn’t exist when Clinton was talking underwear.

It’s a term that definitely exists now. What do you have, Mr. President?

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