Actress Scarlett Johansson walks off stage during the final day...

Actress Scarlett Johansson walks off stage during the final day of the Democratic National Convention at Time Warner Cable Arena in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Sept. 6, 2012) Credit: Getty Images

Four years ago I asked a 21-year-old colleague, a self- proclaimed apolitical, why she was so hellbent on voting for Barack Obama.

"You had Ronald Reagan," she explained. "The first president I've really known is George W. Bush. My generation grew up being told that the U.S. is number one -- that we are the best in the world -- and now it feels like that's slipping away. I think Obama can get us back there."

I wonder what she is thinking today, with the nation $5 trillion deeper in debt, and with an 8.1 percent unemployment rate.

Kristin, my former colleague, was part of the much heralded youth vote in 2008. Her rationale for supporting Obama sounded almost exactly like the reason so many of my generation flocked to Reagan in 1980 and '84. Reagan's and Obama's political philosophies could not be more different, but their optimism was contagious to young minds and souls, mine included.

But the positive energy Obama exuded effortlessly in 2008 seems forced today, and more than a few people are curious to know how that will affect turnout among young voters. A 54 percent underemployment rate for recent college graduates isn't engendering confidence in his leadership qualities among that demographic, either.

Obama for America, the president's re-election team, is well aware of this dynamic, and it is working overtime to try to rekindle the excitement young voters felt for Obama in the heady days of 2008.

I cringed when I learned that Scarlett Johansson would be speaking at the Democratic National Convention toward that end. It didn't bother me that she was being recruited to pump up the youth turnout. I was afraid I would have to add the starlet to my list of Hollywood celebrities who go out of their way to insult Republicans.

(How were the second two movies in Robert Ludlum's "Bourne" series?, you ask. I couldn't tell you; I only saw the first. Matt Damon got added to the list for attacking John McCain in 2008.)

My fears over Johansson were for naught, it turns out. The über-lovely actress glowed with fairness in her remarks. She told young Americans that it is clear whom she supports for president -- Barack Obama -- but that it was up to each of them to decide for him- or herself whom to support. Be it for Romney-Ryan or Obama-Biden, for Pete's sake get out and vote.


In 2008, 51 percent of registered 18- to 29-year-olds voted. It was the second highest turnout for young voters in U.S. history; the highest (55 percent) was for the 1972 election, when 18-year-olds first had the chance to vote in a presidential contest.

The youth vote plummeted by 60 percent in the 2010 midterm elections, according to the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement. And just 36 percent of young voters are "very excited" to vote in the presidential election now -- the lowest percentage of any age group in 2012 -- according to an Elon University/Charlotte Observer poll of likely voters.

It was smart for Johansson to be high-minded at the Democratic convention. She knows that higher youth turnout will likely benefit Obama. The president would win a comfortable 58 percent of the 18- to 29-year-old vote if the election were held today, according to that same Elon/Observer poll. (He defeated John McCain 66-30 among that age group four years ago, according to Pew Research.)

But I can't help thinking of my old friend Kristin these days. Because things continue to feel like they are falling apart for America in 2012, only at an accelerated pace. And the chief issues of this election -- federal debt and unemployment -- are of such deep importance to young Americans, that they could surprise us.

In any event, we need to hear from them. It's their future at stake.

Bill O'Reilly is a Newsday columnist and a Republican political consultant struggling to hold onto his own name. He is no relation to Bill O'Reilly the Fox News commentator.

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