More to the point, though, it’s probably time for us to update our notions of elderly Americans and how their worldviews were formed. We are inclined to imagine our oldest citizens as products of the New Deal, voters whose earliest memories engendered a lasting faith in the goodness of government. But conservative theorists like Karl Rove used to say that time was on the side of Republicans where the elderly were concerned, because Depression-era memories would someday give way to a more complicated historical legacy — and perhaps, in this narrow respect, their grand predictions had some validity. If Obama has little of Bill Clinton’s appeal to old folks, it’s probably because old folks now aren’t the same ones who rode volunteer-driven vans to the polls in 1992.
After all, a 70-year-old American today, born in 1939, probably has no personal memory of F.D.R., but he would have lived through the pain of disappearing manufacturing jobs and family farms, and the rapid deterioration of urban neighborhoods and schools, conditions unabated by government experiments in welfare and public housing. Wooed by Ronald Reagan during their prime earning years, these voters may not be nearly as sympathetic to Obama’s vision of activist government as Democrats might have assumed. For these new senior citizens, even the Social Security and Medicare on which they often rely may be viewed less as instruments of beneficent government than as a partial repayment for decades of taxes.