CHAPEL HILL — President Barack Obama courted college students Tuesday with a mixture of serious public policy about student loans and some humor with late show funny man Jimmy Fallon.
Appearing before 8,000 students at Carmichael Arena, Obama launched a three-state tour to urge Congress to prevent interest rates on many student loans from doubling on July 1.
“We can’t price the middle class out of a college education,” Obama said. “Not at a time when most new jobs in America will require more than a high school diploma. Whether it’s at a four-year college or a two-year program, we can’t make higher education a luxury.”
He turned to humor at an afternoon taping of “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon” at Memorial Hall, when he grabbed the microphone and talked about student loans in a slow jam style – made famous by the love ballads of R&B singer Barry White and others. As he talked, bluesy music played in the background, Fallon provided riffs, and a backup singer sang “The POTUS with most-est.”
But Republicans were not amused by the Obama trip.
They argued that the best thing that could happen for young people is more jobs. In a series of news conferences and news releases they said the last four years under Obama’s term had been bad for young people who had not been able find jobs or had to move back in with their parents.
“The country is in trouble economically,” state Republican Party Chairman Robin Hayes said in a teleconference. “The president is running for re-election, coming to Chapel Hill where Gov. (Bev) Perdue was booed by the students because of the lack of jobs. The truth is that one of two students is not going to get jobs when they graduate.”
Tuesday was Obama’s fourth trip to North Carolina in the past six months, a key swing state in the presidential contest. In 2008, college students provide an important ingredient in his narrow victory in North Carolina, providing him with votes and volunteers.
The president, who was in the Triangle for about four hours, was making an ostensibly nonpolitical trip, to talk about the need for Congress to act so that the rates for federal students loans does not rise from 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent this summer.
He said the average student now faces a $25,000 student loan debt, making it harder for younger people to get a start in life.
Obamas’ had loans, too
In a possible allusion to his likely Republican opponent, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, Obama said, “This is something Michelle and I know about first hand. I just wanted everybody here to understand this – this is not – I didn’t just read about this. I didn’t just read some talking points about this. I didn’t just get a policy briefing on this. Michelle and I, we’ve been in your shoes.”
He said that he and Michelle had a “mountain of debt” when they finished college and only finished paying it off eight years ago.
Romney, while campaigning in Pennsylvania on Monday, backed extending the lower interest rates – the same position as Obama. But in a teleconference on Tuesday, his campaign said Obama had the wrong focus.
“The fact that the president has focused so much attention on student loans is a bit ironic,” said U.S. Rep. Aaron Schock of Illinois. “What young people really want is not student loans but a way to pay for their student loans. They want good paying jobs.”
Although the North Carolina stop was not overtly political, it did have a pep rally feel to it. At the end, the students broke into a “Four more years,” chant. Carmichael was packed and Obama met briefly before his speech with dozens of students in an overflow room who could not get in.
Obama noted that he had chosen the Carolina basketball team to win the NCAA championship, and said “who knows if Kendall (Marshall) hadn’t got hurt.”
Fallon and the Heels
Later Fallon joked that Obama had pandered so much to the Carolina crowd that he was considering changing his campaign slogan from “Yes We Can” to “Duke Sucks.”
After leaving Carmichael, Obama’s motorcade traveled several blocks to Memorial Hall where he spent almost a half hour taping a Tuesday night show with Fallon before a packed audience.
“I’m President Barack Obama, and I, too want to slow-jam the news.”
Obama did not address two contentious issues – the same-sex marriage amendment on the May 8 ballot, which he has said he opposes, or the sex scandal at state Democratic headquarters.
The president was met at Raleigh-Durham International Airport by Perdue, U.S. Reps. David Price and Brad Miller, and the mayors of major cities. Rep. G.K. Butterfield flew from Washington with Obama.