Obama, WH officials visit more than 130 universities, schools in massive campaign for young voters

Neil Munro White House Correspondent
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President Obama, his immediate aides and his cabinet secretaries have used taxpayer dollars to woo young voters at more than 130 universities and schools between March 2011 and March 2012, according to a survey of news reports and press releases reviewed by The Daily Caller.

Obama won 66 percent of the youth vote in 2008, while Republican Sen. John McCain got only 32 percent. Since then, youth enthusiasm for Obama has declined, partly because of high unemployment: More than 50 percent of recent college graduates are unemployed or underemployed.

Less than 35 percent of the 18- to 29-year-old cohort say they’re likely to vote in 2012, according to an April 26 report by Gallup, which also showed Obama leading Romney in that age group by a 64-29 margin.

Roughly one-third of the visits were to swing states, including Virginia, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Ohio, Colorado and Florida.

The number of swing-state visits was matched by visits to universities and schools in blue states, including California, New York, Maryland and Massachusetts. Still, many students in blue-state universities can vote in other states.

Obama personally visited 27 colleges and high schools while trying to boost support and enthusiasm among younger voters. He used Air Force One to visit three more universities this week, spurring charges that he’s using taxpayer-funded flights to subsidize his 2012 campaign.

The first lady, Vice President Joe Biden and his wife Jill visited another 26 education centers during the year. Top Obama aide Valerie Jarrett visited seven centers, and his cabinet secretaries flew or drove to 73 more.

Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan visited 27, while Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano visited 11. Kathleen Sebelius, who runs the Department of Health and Human Services, visited seven and Energy Secretary Steven Chu visited eight, according to press releases collected by Generation Opportunity, which is trying to boost political activity and turnout by younger Americans.

Some of the visits involved multiple officials. For example, Biden and Duncan have visited several schools to tout the administration’s funding plans to an audience of students and their parents.

Sub-cabinet officials, including the surgeon general and the NASA administrator, have visited at least another 73 education centers.

“What you have is very sophisticated effort [by the administration] to use every means possible and every appointed official possible,” Generation Opportunity president Paul Conway told The Daily Caller. However, he added, the group’s surveys show that “people will vote on their record in office, not their charisma.” Conway worked as an appointee in the Department of Labor during the previous administration.

The visits were all considered official visits, but they also helped the Obama administration reach out to a critical segment of their base.

But Obama’s progressive policies are unpopular with many youths, said Conway. “Just 31 percent of 18- 29-year-olds approve of Obama’s handling of youth unemployment … [and] 59 percent of overall Millennials agree the economy grows best when individuals are allowed to create businesses without government interference,” according to an April 2011 Generation Opportunity poll.

To boost youth turnout, Obama’s aides and campaign officials have launched a series of initiatives and campaigns. They’re heavily targeted at 8 million young Americans who were too young to vote in 2008 and may be eager to vote in 2012.

Last November, Obama’s campaign team launched the “Greater Together” tour of campuses. The campaign was announced after an October 2011 Gallup poll showed a 30-point drop in support for Obama among students.

The first “Greater Together” event took place at the University of Pennsylvania and was electronically linked to 84 other colleges and universities. Recent events took place April 11 at the University of Iowa and April 14 in Minnesota.

The campaign showcases Obama’s support from younger Hollywood actors, including Kai Penn and Josh Hartnett.

The White House’s Office of Public Engagement has also arranged student outreach events.

For example, in February Arizona State University played host to the first “Young American Series” event organized by the White House.

The event was “the first in a multi-city series that will bring administration and Department of Education officials to 20 university campuses across the country, said a Feb. 21 ASU News report.

The White House’s student outreach is managed by Ronnie Cho, an associate director of the Office of Public Engagement, which is Jarrett manages.

In January, Cho arranged a conference call with university activists. “He tried to make the call as nonpartisan as possible, but some of the things he said were partisan,” said Raj Kannappan, a Republican at Cornell University. “He talked about how [the outreach] is a chance for activists to build momentum for the next year. … He really didn’t talk about [student] unemployment,” Kannappan said.

Obama has also promoted policies intended to boost support among students and youth.

In January, the Labor Department announced that it would create 110,000 unpaid and 70,000 paid summer jobs and internships. In February, Obama touted his support for free contraceptives when his regulation of churches’ employment practices was opposed by religious groups.

This week, Obama’s tour on Air Force One took him to three universities where he showcased his support for a one-year, $5.6 billion extension of low-interest student loans.

The tour, however, prompted skeptical comments by several White House reporters — including ABC’s Jake Tapper — and by liberal pressure groups.

“It is clear that these were three swing states … [and] claiming no political activity on their agenda certainly invites some of the criticism that they are receiving,” said Common Cause communications chief Mary Boyle, according to a report in The Huffington Post.

Republicans made sure to highlight the issue. “The president traveled across the country on the taxpayer dime at a cost of $179,000 an hour [for Air Force One] insisting that Congress fix a [student loan] problem that we were already working on,” said Speaker of the House John Boehner.

“For the president to make a campaign issue out of this and then to travel to three battleground states and go to three large college campuses on taxpayers’ money, and to try to make this a political issue is pathetic, and his campaign ought to be reimbursing the treasury for the cost of this trip,” he said.

On April 25, the Republican National Committee asked Congress’ Government Accountability Office to investigate Obama’s travel. “President Obama has been passing off campaign travel as ‘official events,’ thereby allowing taxpayers, rather than his campaign, to pay for his reelection efforts. … Because this behavior shows no sign of changing, action must be taken with haste to protect the taxpayers who are being cheated by their government,” said the request.

White House spokesman Jay Carney defended the trips as a routine part of the president’s job.

Only the president, vice president and a few top cabinet officials can use the government aircraft based at Andrews Air Force base.

Other cabinet officials must buy cheaper — but still taxpayer-funded — tickets on commercial aircraft when traveling with their entourages of aides, press secretaries and experts.

In March, Obama used one of the two upgraded Boeing 747 aircraft to go on a four-state, 5,000-mile tour to talk up his energy policies. Some of the resulting images were used his in campaign ads. The fuel bill for the Air Force One trip was roughly $80,000.

However, the increased pace of presidential travel has prompted the Air Force to add nine cargo aircraft from routine and war-related duties to the aircraft pool at Andrews. The extra cargo aircraft are needed to carry the president’s entourage of bodyguards and vehicles to cities ahead of his campaign stops.

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