President Barack Obama hit college campuses and late-night television to urge Congress to freeze student-loan interest rates as he engaged Republican Mitt Romney in a competition for young voters.
Obama and Romney tailored their economic message to attract college-age voters in what both sides say will be a close election in November as graduates face a weak job market and a ballooning debt load from education loans.
“We’ve been in your shoes,” Obama told students today at the University of Iowa in Iowa City, his third and last stop on a trip through three electoral battleground states. The president said he and first lady Michelle Obama carried student debt until about eight years ago. “We can’t price the middle class out of a college education.”
Romney, who declared himself the Republican presidential nominee last night after sweeping five primary contests, has agreed with Obama on stopping the rise in student-loan rates while blaming the administration for an economy in which “50 percent of recent college graduates are unemployed or underemployed.”
With Obama drawing attention to the issue, Congress began moving on legislation to prevent the loan rate from rising, with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, and House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, promising legislation this week.
Voters age 18 to 29 were a key constituency for Obama in the 2008 election, with national exit polls showing he received 66 percent of their vote. He holds a 17-percentage-point lead over Romney among those voters in the current campaign, according to an online survey by Harvard University’s Institute of Politics.
Forty-three percent preferred Obama with 26 percent backing Romney, according to the survey conducted from March 23 through April 9, with 30 percent saying they are undecided. The margin of error was plus or minus 1.7 percentage points.
Between speeches yesterday at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the University of Colorado in Boulder, Obama, 50, taped an appearance on NBC’s “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon” to emphasize his message.
Coinciding with the trip to the three campuses, Rolling Stone magazine put the president on its cover and published an interview with Obama.
Obama told the publication that Republicans in Congress and on the presidential campaign trail have moved “far out of the mainstream” of voters, and that will provide a “sharp” contrast for the general election. Reflecting his broader campaign strategy, Obama indicated he would seek to paint Romney as extreme on issues such as regulation, immigration and the budget that played prominently in the primary campaign.
“I don’t think that their nominee is going to be able to suddenly say, ‘Everything I’ve said for the last six months, I didn’t mean,’” Obama said in Rolling Stone. “I’m assuming that he meant it.”
Romney’s campaign went on the offensive before Obama left Washington yesterday morning.
“Four years ago, the president was able to fool a number of our college students into supporting his campaign, and the result has been the highest level of unemployment for youth in our country’s recorded history,” Hank Brown, a former Republican U.S. senator who also served as president of the University of Colorado, said on a conference call organized by the campaign.
Brown predicted a “dramatic turnaround” on college campuses with larger numbers voting for Republican candidates, including Romney, who he said is “younger and more dynamic” than the party’s 2008 nominee, Senator John McCain, who was 72 at the time of the election. Romney is 65.
Boehner today accused Obama of “trying to invent a fight” over the student-loan interest rate.
“We can and will fix the problem without a lot of campaign-style theatrics,” he told reporters in Washington.
Obama sought to show the students he identifies with their financial plight. Without mentioning his rival’s name, he also drew a distinction with Romney, who helped form the private-equity firm Bain Capital LLC in Boston and is the son of a former auto industry executive. He said in North Carolina that he and Michelle Obama “didn’t come from families of means.”
Not ‘Talking Points’
“I didn’t just get some talking points on this,” Obama told the crowd at the university’s Carmichael Arena. Obama drew cheers and shouts of “four more years” from the crowd before and after the speech.
The three states Obama is visiting were crucial to his 2008 victory. Iowa and Colorado have been swing states, while Obama’s win in North Carolina was the first by a Democratic presidential candidate since 1976.
The president first proposed the student loan rate freeze in his fiscal 2013 budget. The rate will increase to 6.8 percent on July 1 from 3.4 percent unless lawmakers act. The two parties still have to work out differences over paying for the rate freeze, which the Congressional Budget Office estimates will cost $6 billion.
The increase would affect about 7.4 million students, according to the White House, adding an average of $1,000 a year in payments.
Romney said he wants Obama and Congress to extend the freeze “responsibly” by offsetting the cost in “a way that doesn’t harm the job prospects of young Americans.”
Obama also is calling on Congress to increase funding for work-study programs and extend a tuition tax credit.
The average cost of tuition and fees at a public, four-year college has almost tripled since the 1995-1996 academic year and has more than doubled for a private-school education, according to data from the College Board, a New York-based nonprofit group whose members include universities.
Educational-loan debt has ballooned to $1 trillion, surpassing the amount owed on credit cards in the U.S., according to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. That includes federally backed and private loans taken out by students and their parents to pay for college and graduate school.