Obama’s student loan push helps him court crucial young voters

Road trip! President Barack Obama escapes the stuffy confines of Washington on Tuesday, traveling on a two-day swing through major universities in the electoral battlegrounds of North Carolina, Colorado and Iowa. His mission: to push Congress to keep a lid on student loan costs—and reconnect with young voters who powered his historic 2008 campaign.

The campaign-style trip includes Obama's first appearance on "Late Night With Jimmy Fallon," in a segment taped Tuesday afternoon at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

At the policy level, Obama will champion legislation to keep interest rates on some popular student loans from doubling—from 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent—which would tack on roughly another $1,000 each year in costs over the life of those loans, Education Secretary Arne Duncan said at the White House on Friday.

That jump, set to take effect July 1 unless lawmakers act, could force some families and individuals to put off college or forgo it altogether. It could also put a squeeze on recent graduates who have started to pay back what they borrowed but are caught in an ugly job market, as many remain unemployed or underemployed.

"We have an immediate crisis, so let's fix it right now," Duncan bluntly declared from the podium. "This has always enjoyed bipartisan support. We have to educate our way to a better economy. We know the jobs of the future are going to go to those folks with some higher education. And so to not do this together just doesn't make sense to me."

Bipartisan indeed: Presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney on Monday thumped Obama's "failed leadership on the economy" ... but came out firmly in favor of the proposal.

"Given the bleak job prospects that young Americans coming out of college face today, I encourage Congress to temporarily extend the current low rate on subsidized undergraduate Stafford loans," he said.

"Ultimately, what young Americans want and need is a new president who will champion lasting and permanent policy changes that both address the rising cost of a college education and get our economy really growing again," Romney said.

Both the Romney campaign and the Republican National Committee organized pre-emptive conference calls to assail Obama's record before he even sets foot in North Carolina. The RNC also released a Web video attempting to tie the president to a state Democratic Party scandal over alleged sexual harassment.

The onslaught aims to cripple Obama's efforts to re-engage young voters—those same 18-to-34-year-olds who handed out fliers, knocked on doors, gave money, organized and voted for Obama in droves in 2008.

A recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll found Obama trouncing Romney by 60 percent to 34 percent in that age range. But the president needs to fire up his erstwhile political shock troops—whereas 63 percent expressed high interest in an April 2008 poll, that number has slipped to just 45 percent today.

And the Associated Press recently reported that 53.6 percent of bachelor's degree holders under 25 years old are either jobless or underemployed.

Senior administration officials, briefing reporters at the White House on Monday on condition that they not be named and not be quoted directly, acknowledged a drop-off in excitement with young voters and predicted that it would take hard work to build the right organization necessary to bring those supporters out. But they insisted they had always foreseen a tough election and predicted that Obama would still easily win that segment of the electorate.

So off the incumbent goes on a road trip—a taxpayer-funded spin because all of the events are billed as "official" rather than "political"—to three states that are expected to be up for grabs in November's election. The Democrats have made clear how important North Carolina will be this year: It's the site of the party's presidential nominating convention.

Obama's first stop on Tuesday will be the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The White House estimates that 160,000 students in North Carolina could be affected by higher loan interest rates unless Congress acts.

The second will be the University of Colorado at Boulder. The White House says 167,000 students in Colorado could see loan payments jump.

The president will also do a conference call with college and university student journalists—ensuring that his message reaches a national audience of young voters.

On Wednesday, he will visit the University of Iowa and return to Washington.

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