President Barack Obama speaks at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Tuesday, April 24, 2012. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (AP) — President Barack Obama went after the college vote Tuesday, pitching cheaper student loans as he courted the one age group where he has a decided advantage over Republican rival Mitt Romney. The twist? Romney, too, has endorsed the idea. But it's unclear whether deficit-leery Republicans in Congress will go along.
Obama told students at the University of North Carolina that he personally understood the burden of college costs, saying that he and first lady Michelle Obama had "been in your shoes" and didn't pay off their student loans until eight years ago.
"I didn't just read about this. I didn't just get some talking points about this. I didn't just get a policy briefing on this," Obama said. "We didn't come from wealthy families. When we graduated from college and law school, we had a mountain of debt. When we married, we got poor together."
Obama's emphasis on his personal experience set up a contrast with Romney, whose father was a wealthy auto executive. It's a point the president is sure to return to during this summer's campaigning.
"We didn't come from families of means," Obama said. "But we knew that if we worked hard we'd have a shot."
By taking on student debt, Obama spoke to middle-class America and also targeted a growing economic burden that could hamper the national recovery. He is also heading to campuses in the West and Midwest to sell his message to colleges audiences bound to support it.
While leaning on Republicans in Congress to act, he also sought to energize the young people essential to his campaign — those who voted for him last time and the many more who have turned voting age since then. Obama urged students to go to social media sites like Twitter to pressure their lawmakers to prevent the interest rates on the loans "from shooting up and shaking you down."
Both Obama and Romney have expressed support for freezing the current interest rates on the loans for poorer and middle-class students but lawmakers are still exploring ways to pay for the plan. The timing is important because the rate will double from 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent on July 1 without intervention by Congress, an expiration date chosen in 2007 when a Democratic Congress voted to chop the rate in half.
The loan rate freeze Obama and Romney are championing amounts to a one-year, election-year fix at a cost of roughly $6 billion. Congress seems headed that way. Members of both parties are assessing ways to cover the costs and then gain the votes in the House and Senate, which is far from a political certainty. All parties involved have political incentive to keep the rates as they are.
Romney has said that he agrees the loan rates shouldn't be raised on the students, even while he has criticized Obama's economic leadership.
"Given the bleak job prospects that young Americans coming out of college face today, I encourage Congress to temporarily extend the low rate," Romney said in a statement.
Obama spokesman Jay Carney said it was "ironic" that a Republican could both back the interest rate freeze and support a budget proposal from Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., that the White House says would double the rate to 6.8 percent.
Romney has said he is "very supportive" of the Ryan budget.
At the same time, some conservative activists have denounced Romney's decision to match Obama's position on student loan rates.
"Mitt Romney is going to sell out conservatives in his party" to improve his chances in the November election, Michael Brendan Dougherty wrote in a blog carried by sites including Free Republic.
With Romney seemingly assured of sweeping the five Republican presidential primaries being held Tuesday, the former Massachusetts governor planned a focus on the general election with a speech in New Hampshire titled "A Better America Begins Tonight."
Ahead of the speech, Romney supporters said Obama's policies had hurt younger voters and questioned whether the president could garner the same amount of support as in 2008.
"Young people are sitting here three and a half years later and they're not better off," said Alex Schriver, chairman of the College Republican National Committee.
The president was also speaking Tuesday at the University of Colorado at Boulder, and then at the University of Iowa on Wednesday. All three schools are in states that Obama carried in 2008, and all three states are considered among the several that could swing to Obama or Romney and help decide a close 2012 election.
Both campaigns are fighting for the support of voters buried in college debt. The national debt amassed on student loans is higher than that for credit cards or auto loans.
The Federal Reserve Bank of New York has estimated about 15 percent of Americans, or 37 million people, have outstanding student loan debt. The bank puts the total at $870 billion, though other estimates have reached $1 trillion. About two-thirds of student loan debt is held by people under 30.
Obama carried voters between the ages of 18-29 by a margin of about 2-to-1 in 2008, but many recent college graduates have had difficulty finding jobs. That raises concerns for the president about whether they will vote and volunteer for him in such large numbers again.
Without mentioning her by name, Obama cited North Carolina Republican Rep. Virginia Foxx, quoting her from a recent radio interview with G. Gordon Liddy in which she said, "I have very little tolerance for people who tell me that they graduate with $200,000 of debt."
Obama said allowing the interest rates to double this summer would hurt more than 7 million students, costing the average student $1,000 and amounting to a "tax hike" for those students and their families.
"Anybody here can afford to pay an extra thousand dollars right now?" Obama asked to jeers from the crowd. "I don't think so."