CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – When Barack Obama spoke Tuesday at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, he wasn’t just a president trying to promote his higher education policy. To many students, he was someone who understood their burdens of carrying college loans.
The president talked of paying down student debt while kicking off a two-day swing to three university campuses with a stop at Carmichael Arena on the UNC campus. Obama said he and wife Michelle had a “mountain of debt,” with payments that initially cost more than what they were paying on their mortgage. The debt was paid off only about eight years ago, he said.
“I didn’t just read about this,” Obama said, adding later: “Michelle and I we’ve been in your shoes.”
While pushing his immediate goal of building pressure upon Congress to extend low-interest rates on Stafford loans before rates double this summer, Obama’s Chapel Hill visit gave him the chance to connect to a whole new crop of college students. These are students like 21-year-old Bradley Reid, who wasn’t old enough to vote four years ago but is now dealing with his own piles of debt.
“I’m definitely worried about being able to pay off all of my loans and get a good job,” said Reid, of Mount Vernon, N.Y., who expects to graduate this December with about $40,000 in debt. “And the fact that the president of the United States has been in that position, it’s really empowering to hear that.”
Likely Republican rival Mitt Romney has said he also wants to prevent the rates from increasing in a law approved by the Democratic-controlled Congress in 2007.
Obama said his administration has reformed student loan programs to ensure more money goes directly to students, but more must be done. If the Stafford loan interest rate should double from 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent, he said, each student on average will see an added $1,000 in payments.
“We have to make college more affordable for our young people,” Obama told the crowd of 8,000 at the arena during his 35-minute appearance. “At this make-or-break moment for the middle class, we’ve got to make sure that you’re not saddled with debt before you even get started in life.”
While the trip was considered an official visit, every appearance in North Carolina has meaning for Obama’s re-election campaign.
He won North Carolina’s 15 electoral votes in 2008 by only a 14,000-vote margin and is trying to refresh interest in his bid among young people. Obama has visited North Carolina more than a dozen times as president, and the Democratic National Convention will be in Charlotte this September. Obama carried voters 18-29 by about 2-to-1 in 2008, but many recent college graduates are dealing with high levels of unemployment.
Ferrel Guillory, director of the Program on Public Life at UNC-Chapel Hill, said those students who were excited about Obama four years ago are no longer on college campuses.
The president must “re-energize the former students whom he energized four years ago who are young adults and may or may not have a job, and he has to re-introduce himself to today’s students,” he said.
UNC-Chapel Hill freshman Andrea Gonzalez, 19, of Raleigh, said she was thinking more about dance and theater in high school than the presidential contest back in 2008. With $6,000 in Stafford loans this year, she said she’s more attentive now to the nation’s political future and Obama’s message.
“In high school, we didn’t do a lot of politics around my school,” Gonzalez said.
Obama also courted the youth vote when he taped an appearance for NBC’s “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon,” before leaving for the University of Colorado. He was expected Wednesday at the University of Iowa.
Republican leaders in North Carolina criticized Obama for focusing more on his re-election bid by again visiting the state, rather than working on a job-creation plan in Washington with Congress.
State GOP Chairman Robin Hayes also referred to the state Democratic Party and a sexual harassment scandal that led to the resignation of its executive director and forced out its chairman as proof the party is in disarray.
“How can we trust President Obama and the Democrats’ leadership if they don’t … clean up their own mess?” Hayes said beforehand.
Obama made no reference to the state party’s troubles in his speech.
Rather, he talked about his steps to reform and raise eligibility for student loan programs that he said already had brought $60 billion more to students over 10 years. He exhorted students to urge their members of Congress to extend the 2007 law, pointing out that 77 Republicans supported it back then: “Helping more of our young people afford college … it shouldn’t be a Republican or a Democratic issue. This is an American issue.”
But the president’s own debt story seemed more important than numbers to Jason Wolonick, a 19-year-old UNC-Chapel Hill freshman from Pinehurst. “He appealed to me personally because he said, `I was there.’ And he was there,” Wolonick said.