CHAPEL HILL— President Barack Obama told thousands of students at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill on Tuesday that he wants Congress to keep the costs of a college education in check, reaching out to young people in a state expected to figure heavily in his re-election bid.
Obama was greeted by a full Carmichael Arena at UNC-Chapel Hill after flying in to Raleigh-Durham International Airport for the first stop of a two-day swing to three university campuses in states that the president won in 2008 and are now considered swing states.
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Obama won North Carolina’s 15 electoral votes in 2008 by only a 14,000-vote margin.
Obama was expected to tape an appearance for NBC’s “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon,” on campus before leaving.
Obama wants to build support for getting Congress to extend low-interest rates on Stafford loans before rates double this summer from 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent. Likely Republican rival Mitt Romney said on the eve of Obama’s trip he also wants to prevent the rates from increasing in a law approved by the Democratic-controlled Congress in 2007.
Obama said his administration already 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, he said, each student on average will see an additional $1,000 in payments.
“We have to make college more affordable,” Obama told the crowd estimated at 8,000. “We’ve got to make sure that you’re not saddled with debt before you even get started in life.”
The president, who has made at least a dozen appearances in North Carolina since taking office, would benefit from improving relations with a new crop of college students who weren’t old enough to vote four years ago. Obama told how he and wife Michelle just finish paying off their college loans about eight years ago.
“I didn’t just read about this. I didn’t get some talking points about this,” Obama said. “Michelle and I, we’ve been in our shoes.”
Obama has a pair of challenges in North Carolina, said Ferrel Guillory, director of the Program on Public Life at UNC-Chapel Hill.
“Four years ago, the voters on university campus and community colleges who were excited four years (for Obama) are no longer on the campuses,” Guillory said in an interview.
He said 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.”
Republican leaders in North Carolina criticized Obama for focusing more on his re-election campaign by again visiting the state, rather than working on a job-creation plan in Washington with Congress.
State GOP Chairman Robin Hayes referred to the recent troubles at the state Democratic Party — a sexual harassment scandal that led to the resignation of the executive director and forced out the 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 before his visit. “And he needs to speak to that — he is the leader of the Democrats.”
Obama made no reference to the state party’s troubles in his speech.
UNC-Chapel Hill freshman Andrea Gonzalez, 19, of Raleigh, who attended Tuesday’s event, said she incurred $6,000 in Stafford loans this year. She he was thinking more about dance and theater in 2008 while attending high school than about politics. Now, Gonzalez said, she’s more focused on the nation’s political future and Obama’s message.
“I just want to hear that he’s supporting the youth,” Gonzalez said. “I know that he does a lot because we are some of his biggest voting base, but I just want to hear that he is supporting us.”