Carolyn Kaster, Associated Press
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — 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.
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