BOULDER, Colo. — Thousands of college students waited hours through intermittent rain and record-setting heat Tuesday to see President Barack Obama deliver his student-loan pitch at the University of Colorado at Boulder.
But Democrats don’t have to worry about the throngs who turned out to hear Obama pitch lower-cost student loans in Colorado and two other states he won in 2008 — Iowa and North Carolina.
Instead, Democrats need to worry about voters like Alex Cutter, a 21-year-old junior from Colorado Springs. She voted for Obama last time, joining young voters nationwide who helped Obama carry former Republican bastions.
Cutter’s still a big fan of the president, but she couldn’t attend his speech despite free tickets because she’s working two part-time jobs to make ends meet and couldn’t miss her shift at an off-campus coffee shop. Cutter says she could owe up to $15,000 in student loans after graduating.
“We’re all worried about this coming out of school,” Cutter said.
Those fears explain why the president has been on Colorado college campuses twice in the last year talking about student loan debt. In October, Obama chose a downtown Denver campus to announce a plan to accelerate a measure passed by Congress that reduces the maximum payment lenders can require on student loans from 15 percent of discretionary income annually to 10 percent.
On both visits, Obama tried the personal approach with students, talking about his own struggles paying off student loans. Obama told students he and Michelle Obama were paying off student debt long after they should have been saving for their daughters’ educations.
“We were writing those checks every month, and that wasn’t easy,” Obama said Tuesday. He drew wild cheers when he assured the college students they weren’t lazy by taking out student loans.
If Obama hopes to keep Colorado’s nine electoral votes in his column this November, he needs college-age voters to stick with him. And despite Obama’s popularity among college students, whom polls indicate largely support him, the president also faces a college population of voters sour on their prospects after graduation and fearing the worst.
Young Americans have suffered bigger income losses than other age groups and are less likely to be employed than at any time since World War II, according to a February analysis by the Pew Research Center. Even young Democratic activists aren’t feeling upbeat.
“The president is in charge, and he’s a Democrat, so right there, there’s less enthusiasm for the Democratic Party,” said Kourtney Jones, a 21-year-old Colorado State University student from nearby Fort Collins. She’s a political science major who remembers a campus engulfed in Obama fever when she was a freshman. Now in her final year, Jones said the campus mood is more subdued.
“He’s amazing at hitting 19-year-olds,” Jones said of Obama. “But before it was `Change’ and `Let’s change it.’ Now it’s, `What exactly has changed?”’
Political scientists accustomed to seeing how college-age voters perceive politicians have noticed the reduced enthusiasm, but they’re not sure yet how much Obama needs to worry about it.
University of Denver political scientist Seth Masket pointed out that in the spring of 2008, students active in politics were buzzing about the Democratic primary contest between Obama and now-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. This time around, Masket said, Obama had no primary competition, so the kinds of students most interested in politics, the kinds who quit school for a semester to go work for political campaigns, are more likely Republicans.
However, Masket added that young voters aren’t entirely different than older voters.
“To the extent young people aren’t as wild about Obama as they were four years ago, well, the nation as a whole is not as excited about Obama as they were four years ago,” Masket said.
At Metropolitan State College of Denver, political scientist Robert Hazan said students were talking about Obama’s student-loan pitch long after his visit to downtown Denver in October. Hazan said Obama is wise to keep sending targeted messages to young voters, such as talk about student loans and access to birth control, instead of simply making a big-picture pitch such as promises of change in the future.
“These messages are resonating,” Hazan said. “The average student is working 20, 30 hours a week, and they have these unbelievable loans. They have debt they can’t stop. For these voters, politics is less ideological and more focused. When Obama is talking to students, he’s really delivering a message for the students. This kind of campaigning is right on target.”
Some students interviewed before the president’s speech said they wanted to hear about more than student loans, though. Sophomore Lida Stransky said she hasn’t made up her mind which candidate she’ll support in November.
“There’s a lot of mixed feelings out there because nobody’s sure who can make things better, and who’s just talking,” said Stransky, who didn’t attend the speech.