Obama hits the road Thursday to talk college affordability

Neil Munro White House Correspondent
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With his poll ratings down, President Barack Obama is taking a two-day road trip to show sympathy for those hit hard by rising university costs during his four-and-a-half-year tenure.

The trip will allow him to make three speeches in New York on Thursday, and speak at two town halls and at one speech in Pennsylvania on Friday.

“At each stop, the President will discuss the importance of ensuring that every American has the opportunity to achieve a quality education by reducing cost and improving the value of higher education for middle-class students and their families,” a White House statement said.

The event may bump up his poll numbers prior to the high-stakes political fights this fall, when he’s expected to clash with the House GOP over spending. He’s also expected to push the GOP to pass a hotly contested bill that would provide a pathway to citizenship for the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants residing in the country.

Gallup reported Aug. 15 that Obama’s economic ratings have sunk to 35 percent, far less than the Democratic base of about 45 percent of the electorate. The 35 percent score is a sharp drop from June’s 42 percent rating.

Obama’s overall approval rating fell to 44 percent, down from 47 percent in June, concluded Gallup.

Even if he doesn’t increase his ratings, he’s expected to use the speeches to continue his sharp invective against the GOP.

In his Saturday weekly address, for example, Obama claimed Republican legislators are debating whether to cut off health care to Americans or shut down the government.

GOP legislators, however, say they’re debating how best to minimize the damage caused by Obama’s 2010 Obamacare law, which is slated to formally go into full effect in January.

Obama’s focus on college costs allows him to aim his message of sympathy to recent graduates and university-educated parents.

They’re two groups that heavily supported him in 2008. Their support declined in 2012, but they could prove important in the 2014 midterm elections. Obama is already campaigning and fundraising to preserve the Democrats’ majority in the Senate, and to win a Democratic majority in the House.

On Thursday, Obama will give speeches at the University at Buffalo, the State University of New York and Henninger High School in Syracuse, New York.

On Friday, he will participate in a town hall event at Binghamton University and at the State University of New York. He’ll also give a speech at Lackawanna College in Scranton, Pa.

The level of student debt has grown past $1 trillion during Obama’s tenure, partly because the federal government has increased its effort to offer low-interest education loans to young people, including many who do not graduate.

Obama has championed this cheap-credit policy, and successfully pushed Congress to boost annual spending on Pell grants from $19 billion in 2009 to $36 billion in 2013.

Graduates’ ability to pay their debt has also declined, partly because of the stalled economy, but also because wages have declined for more than a decade, and especially since Obama’s inauguration.

For example, college grads comprised 19 percent of hourly workers, up from 13 percent in 2002, according to a March report in the Wall Street Journal.

Graduates’ average debt load has deterred them from major commitments, such as buying a house or getting married. For example, two-thirds of graduates have an average debt of $26,600, and a college couple will end up paying $208,000 over the next few decades, according to a new study by the New York-based think-tank, Demos.

Obama is trying to convert that student-loan crisis into a political opportunity, and recently signed a new bill that links the interest rate on government-backed student loans to federal interest rates.

GOP legislators pushed the reform law because it tends to reduce politicians’ ability to offer cuts to interest rates in exchange for political support.

During the 2012 presidential election, Obama appealed to college voters by championing his support for a temporary rollback in student loan interest rate.

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Neil Munro