President Obama tries to recapture youth vote

President Obama is making a concerted effort to recapture the support of young voters who have grown skeptical of his administration.

Obama will visit three college campuses in swing states this week, where he’ll try to appeal to young voters by urging Congress to pass legislation to prevent interest rates on subsidized student loans from doubling to 6.8 percent this summer.

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He’ll appear at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the University of Colorado at Boulder and the University of Iowa, where he’ll make his student loan pitch before large audiences of the country’s youngest voters. All three states were in Obama’s column in 2008. 

Before leaving Chapel Hill on Tuesday, the president will aim for an even larger audience of young voters when he appears on NBC’s “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon.”

Obama’s campus tour comes as recent polls indicate that he might have lost some of the “magic dust” one former administration official says he carried in 2008.

The campaign “needs the youth vote now more than ever,” said one former senior administration official. “While we know support is still strong, we’re not taking anything for granted.”

Senior administration officials backed that premise on Monday by saying that winning over younger voters, in what they think will be a close election, is going to be difficult. At the same time, the officials said they believed they will have the winning recipe when voters hit the polls in November — especially because of their economic message.

Obama leads presumptive GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney 60 percent to 34 when it comes to the youth vote, according to a recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll. But Obama’s enthusiasm has taken a nosedive, the poll shows. In 2008, 63 percent of 18- to 34-year-olds took a big interest in the election. Four years later, 45 percent have the same level of interest, reflecting the most sizable drop in one of the major voting groups.

The falling poll numbers come as data compiled by The Associated Press show that 53 percent of college graduates are unemployed or currently have a job that doesn’t meet their qualifications.

Romney trumpeted those figures Monday during a campaign stop, saying that young people are “questioning” the support they gave Obama in 2008.

“I saw a report this morning that just about half of all the kids coming out of college can’t find work or are underemployed,” he said in Pennsylvania. “Can you imagine?”

Obama, who missed two votes on the legislation when he was a senator in 2007, wants to use the prospect of higher student loans as a wedge issue against Romney. Under existing law, legislation that keeps interest rates on federally subsidized student loans at 3.4 percent will expire in July, causing interest rates to double for 7 million students. Obama is urging Congress to extend the low rates by way of legislation.  

Romney sought to neutralize the issue Monday by siding with Obama, as his campaign issued a statement encouraging Congress to “temporarily extend” the current low rate on subsidized undergraduate Stafford loans.

The presumptive GOP nominee said the cost of extending the loans should be offset to ensure it “doesn’t harm the job prospects of young Americans” by adding to U.S. debt.

The Obama campaign quickly fired back, saying that Romney changed positions.

“Mitt Romney continues to make promises that he can’t keep,” said Obama for America campaign spokeswoman Lis Smith. “While he previously endorsed the Ryan budget, which would make deep cuts to Pell Grants and allow student loan rates to double, and last week said that he would gut the Department of Education to pay for his tax plan, today we heard yet another contradictory position from Romney on student loans.”

But in a briefing with reporters on Monday, senior administration officials said they anticipated Romney would back the extension and that, as the new leader of the Republican Party, he would help work with Democrats to help with an agreement. 

With his visits to college campuses this week, observers say Obama is trying to reproduce some of the excitement around his campaign in 2008, when he beat Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) 66 percent to 31 among young voters.

“The real question is, can he reproduce his margins from 2008?” said Cal Jillson, a professor of political science at Southern Methodist University. “It will be difficult for him, but he’s got to come as close as he can.

“There’s some deflation in all the constituencies, including the youth vote, that were once so hopeful,” Jillson added. “Everybody is disappointed to some degree, because hopes were too high. Nobody got as much as they had hoped for.”

James Kvaal, the policy director for Obama for America, insisted during a conference call Monday that the campaign is confident in its approach to courting young voters.

“We think he has the right vision and the right answers, which will appeal to those voters,” Kvaal said, adding that Romney has proposed “huge tax cuts for the rich” and has the “wrong answers for young Americans and the wrong answers for our economy.” 

Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), who was also on the conference call, said he plans to introduce legislation in the coming days that would prevent what he called a “devastating rate hike” on student loans.

“We need Republicans to work with us,” Harkin said. “This is unacceptable, especially at this very tenuous time for our economy.”

While Obama might have lost some support among young voters, Jillson said he will be able to recapture some of the “magic” he had during his first presidential bid.

“How much of the magic? The answer is some, not all,” Jillson said.