In a talk at the Pennsylvania Conference for Women on Tuesday, Oct. 3, former first lady Michelle Obama described how her husband impacted young people in a way that's very different from the Trump administration. She painted a picture of a time where the national conversation centered around hope, possibility, "options, and opportunity." What young people are witnessing in the news now, she said, doesn't align with the ideals and values they were taught while President Obama was in the White House, and she thinks they're well-aware.
In her speech, Obama characteristically did not mention President Trump by name. This also makes sense because the conference, according to its website, is both nonprofit and nonpartisan. Its mission statement, however, claims it is "committed to helping close the pay gap, eliminate gender discrimination and achieve parity in company leadership," all of which are frequently politically divisive.
"Many of the young people today, they only know Barack Obama as their president and what that standard felt like and what kind of messages were being talked about," Obama said in conversation with television producer Shonda Rhimes.
She elaborated, "I think they will feel some of what's happening now as intrinsically not what they were taught."
In her eyes, the youth under President Obama are "less tolerant of obvious inequities." Young people in 2017 are received starkly different messaging from President Trump.
The former first lady seemed to point out a truth that has science to back it up. According to a survey released by the Pew Research Center earlier this year, Americans have become more tolerant of various religious groups than they were even a few years ago. That's not to say that President Obama personally orchestrated this change, but his messages frequently hinged on notions of tolerance and acceptance, which could add a thematic cultural background to the numbers.
Participants in the Pew survey were asked to rate various religious groups on a "feeling thermometer" that ranged from 0 to 100, with 100 being the warmest, most endearing ranking. In July of 2014, Muslims and Atheists were ranked at 40 and 41, respectively. By February 2017, they ranked at 48 and 50, according to an analysis of the data. The only religious group that did not increase in ranking were Evangelical Christians.
Similarly, researches at the San Diego State University published a study in the journal Social Forces in 2014 which found that "Americans have become increasingly tolerant of controversial beliefs and lifestyles (i.e., marginalized outgroups)."
Researchers went on, "They are more likely to believe that homosexuals, Communists, militarists, and the anti-religious have the right to give speeches, teach at a college, and have a book in a local library."
According to an analysis of the study on ThinkProgress, "tolerance declined as the respondents got older and young people were the most tolerant. Tolerance also correlated highly with liberal political views and higher levels of educational attainment."
It's undeniable that President Obama made great strides toward codifying equality. Under his administration, "Don't Ask Don't Tell" was reversed, the Affordable Health Care increased health care access, gay marriage was federally legalized, and he "put employers on the hook for discriminatory pay practices." These were just a few of the ways that America pivoted toward intersectional equality during Obama's tenure, but they reflected his greater platform.
Meanwhile, President Trump is frequently divisive. His responses to the violence in Charlottesville or his directive banning transgender recruits from the military almost speak for themselves. Add to that the travel bans and his cold response to hurricane devastation in Puerto Rico and the image becomes more clear. In less than nine full months, he has projected a message to the American people that almost entirely opposes the equality-based values that the Obama administration worked to spread. President Obama set a high standard for leadership that isn't even close to replication under the current administration.
These are the types of concerns Michelle Obama seemed to allude to. Youth in 2017 are undeniably receiving very different messages from their presidential administration than the youth in 2008 or 2012. The impact of such a shift waits to be seen.