Obama: One Origin of Gen Z Frustration - Wolf-PAC

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Obama: One Origin of Gen Z Frustration

A typical dad? Do as I say, not as I did.

By Steve Geller & Jeff Eidsness

August 31, 2023

…the world’s burning and there’s nothing I can do!

This expression of despair could have been from any kid to any parent these days, but 24-year-old Malia Obama was talking to her dad, the former president. Well, what was his response, and what happened when he could have done something about it? 

“…we may not be able to cap temperature rise to two degrees centigrade, but… if we work really hard, we may be able to cap it at three and a half instead of three, or three instead of three and a half. That extra [degree of] centigrade might mean the difference between whether Bangladesh is under water, …whether 100 million people have to migrate or only a few…. It’s worth fighting for.”

Playing by the rules, or… 

His words aren’t untrue — making small steps forward can be useful, but this is a global emergency. He doesn’t tackle the root of the problem — the systemic incentives that have created and worsened the crisis to this point. He seems to accept some degree of catastrophe, and leaves us pushing back against this overwhelming situation with a vague notion of “hard work.” By contrast, consider Greta Thunberg. After getting arrested in a protest, she said, “We know that we cannot save the world by playing by the rules, because the rules have to be changed.

So what did he do?

Considering his actions however, those words from a two-term former president sound particularly hollow. Obama had numerous chances to address climate change — not just “work hard,” but set policies. Instead, he boasted of increasing fossil fuel production. “Under my administration, America is producing more oil today than at any time in the last eight years…. Over the last three years, [we’ve opened] …up millions of acres for gas and oil exploration across 23 different states. We’re opening up more than 75% of our potential oil resources offshore. We’ve quadrupled the number of operating rigs to a record high. We’ve added enough new oil and gas pipelines to encircle the Earth and then some.”

Obama was clearly aware of the consequences. In 2012, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change projected 4-degrees of warming by 2100. But Obama soon lifted the 40-year ban on crude oil exports, leading to an increase in oil production of 88% during his presidency. Perhaps raising money for his 2012 campaign was more of a priority than saving Bangladesh from flooding. During that election cycle, he got $1.1 million from the oil and gas industry.

Yes we can! for the banks

Sadly, this was a pattern for Obama on many issues. Before working on Obama’s transition team, Citigroup executive Michael Froman bundled $200,000 for Obama’s 2008 campaign. Through Froman, Obama also received “recommendations” from Citigroup for cabinet members. He chose virtually every one of them, including Robert Gates, Arne Duncan, Susan Rice, Eric Holder, Rahm Emanuel, and Janet Napolitano and others. Obama formed this cabinet while publicly decrying the behavior of the banks in the wake of the financial crash a few weeks earlier.

Notably, Obama also took their direction to nominate investment banker Tim Geithner as Treasury Secretary. Obama didn’t just help out the banking industry, he gave them the master key to the administration, which they filled with their friends and colleagues. In the wake of the financial crash a few weeks before the election, Obama publicly decried the behavior of banks. But he ended up bailing them out, with Citigroup receiving over $300 billion in taxpayer money. Froman got millions in bonuses before becoming a trade representative in the administration.

As a result…

The powerlessness and nihilism that Malia’s generation feels did not emerge in a vacuum.  During his first campaign, the candidate really seemed capable of transformative leadership. It is difficult to overstate how unique and optimistic Obama’s oration sounded at the time. He took over from a president who was the son of a president — apparently ending a dynasty. His rallying cry was “Yes we can,” vowing “hope and change.” He was an outsider, visibly distinct from the Beltway’s traditional leaders. His rise suggested a turning point in U.S. history.

But it did not happen. He did not change the rules, but reinforced them. Young people watched their parents lose their homes, some still excited about a “new era.” Wall Street got bailed out, executives received huge bonuses, and more than 10 million families lost their homes. As the earth continued heating up, Obama’s actions often made things worse.

The cynicism comes when even the rare politician that can engender real hope falls dramatically short of that promise.  How should we feel the next time a politician offers substantial change?  Even if that candidate wins, even if they “work hard,” these problems are far harder to solve than in 2008 — it seems impossible. With Obama’s failures, the disillusionment of younger generations is perfectly understandable.

Let’s pick ourselves off the floor

So, what can we do? We ourselves can act. We can be the change we seek. Actually, Obama once said, “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.” Our current political leaders avoid the essential questions, such as how campaign contributions largely determine their policy decisions. Because they’re trapped in a system designed to prevent real solutions, we must ourselves change the rules of the system. That’s what Wolf-PAC’s all about: collective action — the only way to bring about meaningful change in our democratic republic. 

Rather than put your hopes into any one political figure, consider joining Wolf-PAC. In fighting for an amendment that puts campaign finance controls in the Constitution, we use the rules to change the rules. When you join our network of dedicated, informed individuals, you will gain insight into how you can leverage people power into real change. Wolf-PAC is in fact the perfect antidote for cynicism. And you can help lead the charge.


The Wolf-PAC all-volunteer Communications Team helped produced this work, including editing by Brian Martel and Debbie Augustine.


  1. CEPR Staff. Another Timothy Geithner Scandal. (2020, January 14). Center for Economic and Policy Research. Retrieved August 24, 2023, from https://cepr.net/another-timothy-geithner-scandal/
  2. Hasan Minhaj. (2023, June 21). I asked President Obama if he’s DEPRESSED!? [Video]. YouTube. Retrieved August 24, 2023, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jAYVKZSWXhY
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