Clarence Page / Politics

Making Student Loans 'Cool'

President Obama "slow jams the news"? Is this a nakedly bold pitch for the youth vote or what?

I'm talking about the president's appearance Tuesday night on "Late Night with Jimmy Fallon." In front of a live audience at the University of North Carolina, the nation's commander-in-chief took charge in "slow jamming the news," an occasional feature on the late-night show.

It consists of reciting some news of the day with anchorman seriousness while backup singers and The Roots, Fallon's house band, lay down some smooth jazz in the background, punctuated with appropriate repetitions of "baby."

The stunt posed a risk, even to Obama's famously cool stagecraft. Many a middle-ager has bombed with lame attempts to sound cool in front of their children and other young'uns. As a parent, I speak from hard-learned experience. But I can get away with it. It is part of my unwritten job description as a parent to embarrass my kid from time to time. Politicians in public aren't that lucky.

Obama wisely stuck to a familiar script. Speaking to his collegiate audience, he filled his slow jam with applause lines from the stump speech that he was barnstorming to campuses in Iowa, Colorado and North Carolina -- three states that he won in 2008 but that appear to be up for grabs now.

His main issue has strong appeal to the hearts and wallets of college students, post-grads and their families: student loans. It also has a new urgency at the moment. Unless Congress acts, the current subsidized rates on new Stafford student loans will expire in July, doubling the rate borrowers pay from 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent. That difference amounts to an average increase of $1,000 per year per student.

Mellowed by his mood-music background, the president injected the hopelessly stodgy student loan issue with a comical dose of hip and cool:

"Now is not the time," he said, directly addressing the camera, "to make school more expensive for our young people."

"Ohhhh, yeah," Fallon chimed in like Isaac Hayes murmuring sweet nothings into his microphone. "You should listen to the president."

That's what the president hopes, especially if it leads to more re-election votes. He needs to rekindle the Yes-We-Can enthusiasm among young voters that propelled him to the Oval Office in 2008. He has a 17 percentage point advantage over his presumptive Republican rival Romney among voters between 18 and 29, according to a nationwide poll by Harvard University's Institute of Politics. But almost a third in that age group is undecided. Obama has an advantage with under-30 voters that he needs to energize to offset his deficits with older voters, particularly white, blue-collar males.

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