WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama appeared before a big crowd of college students and implored, "We can't sit this one out."
The effective reply: Yes we can. Despite the plea at the University of Wisconsin just before the midterm elections, Republicans won in waves.
Today in Florida, Obama will address another big college crowd. It's a commencement speech, not a political rally. But his trip to Miami Dade College implicitly carries the same urgent message.
As he shifts toward re-election, Obama is trying to reignite the youthful passion that played a crucial role in putting him in the White House. He is visiting campuses to give graduation speeches or host town halls, and dispatching aides to hold 100 "youth roundtables" across the country. Last week, Obama held a forum on Facebook.
An estimated 15 million first-time voters came out in 2008, and 55 percent were age 18 to 24. Overall, 22.4 million Americans younger than 30 voted in 2008, 2 million more than 2004 and 6.5 million more than 2000.
They were the truest of believers, captivated by the fresh approach Obama offered. Upbeat legions of volunteers trudged across states, knocking on doors, stuffing envelopes and staffing phone banks.
More than two years later, college students grapple with fears about unemployment (higher for their age bracket than for others) and have watched the Yes-We-Can attitude be crumpled by Washington-as-usual politics.
"It was so nice to see all the spirit and hope and vigor we had in terms of his presidency," said Ciara Taylor, a Florida A&M University senior who volunteered for Obama in 2008. "I feel somehow we got lost with everything that's been going on."
Taylor, 22, of Vero Beach described a litany of concerns, from wars to partisan bickering to state budget cuts that have limited which classes she can take. Taylor works 40 hours a week at the mall to pay for school.
She said Obama needs to show more energy than in the video announcing his 2012 campaign. It featured voters with the message that the grass-roots would have to get engaged. Nowhere was the candidate, whose soaring rhetoric proved a motivator in 2008.
"It was kind of like, 'This is it?' " Taylor said.
Obama is asking supporters to hang on. "The biggest mistake we can make is to let disappointment or frustration lead to apathy and indifference," he said at the University of Wisconsin rally in September.
He can count on a higher turnout for a presidential election year, and support among young voters has improved recently. A Harvard University poll released in March showed 55 percent of voters age 18 to 29 approved of his job performance. In general polls, his approvals are in the mid 40s.
But a longer view confirms growing pessimism. About six in 10 young adults are more cynical about the political process now than in 2008, according to a fall 2010 survey by Rock the Vote.
"They came out of that election paying way more attention to politics, and what they saw was frustrating," said Heather Smith, president of the nonpartisan Rock the Vote. "Young people are optimistic, but if they don't see things changing or getting better, I think it's going to be very hard to mobilize them to do more than just vote."
Obama senses that, apparent in his ramped-up efforts on campus. Officially, the roundtable events and commencement speeches are unrelated to the election. The White House says Obama wants to bring the concerns into the national debate.
As Obama was hosting a Facebook town hall last week, his youth ambassador, actor Kal Penn (of Harold & Kumar fame), was in Gainesville talking to UF students. The following day, Penn went to FAMU in Tallahassee.
Republicans promise a more aggressive effort, too, and have gotten far more web savvy since 2008, when exit polls showed Obama got 66 percent of the youth vote compared with 32 percent for John McCain.
This week, the Republican Party of Florida held a "Twitter Town Hall" aimed at young voters. The College Republican National Committee launched a TV ad this week in Iowa, an early presidential testing ground, featuring students alarmed at the growing national debt.
If the economy and budget woes work against Obama at the national level, the bleak fiscal picture could be a problem for Republicans in states they control. Florida lawmakers and Gov. Rick Scott have been slashing the budget and eyeing cuts in the widely popular Bright Futures college scholarship program.
Democrats say an elections bill pushed through the Legislature is designed to suppress student voting because it would limit the ability of people to change their addresses at the polls. There are also tough new regulations on third-party voter registration groups, which helped fuel Obama's 2008 success.
Ben Cavataro, who graduates Saturday from the University of Florida and is former president of the state college Democrats, acknowledged the difficulties in Washington but said Obama is moving on what he promised.
"Overall, the wheels are in motion on a whole range of issues," said Cavataro, 21 and headed to law school. "Considering all of the events that have happened — like the BP oil spill and the crisis in the Arab world — he's done a pretty good job."
At Miami Dade College today, Obama will focus on his theme of "winning the future" by out-educating global competitors. The White House said the college is a leader and school president Eduardo Padron serves on a presidential committee to advance education opportunities for Hispanics.
But the visit has clear political upsides. Not only will Obama be exposed to thousands of students, but also the media spotlight in a Democratic vote-rich part of the state that is critical to his re-election strategy.
The trip, which will include watching the space shuttle launch in Cape Canaveral, is Obama's sixth to Florida in the past 12 months.
Times researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report.