WASHINGTON — Eager to energize young voters, President Barack Obama is depicting Republicans as obstacles to an affordable college education as he previews an argument he will make on university campuses next week in states crucial to his re-election.
"This is a question of values," Obama said in his weekly radio and Internet address Saturday. "We cannot let America become a country where a shrinking number of people do really well while a growing number of people struggle to get by."
Obama wants Congress to extend a law that cut interest rates on a popular federal loan program for low- and middle-income undergraduates. If the law expires, the rates will double on July 1, from 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent.
Obama blames Republicans for voting against new ways to make college more affordable for middle-class families. But it was House Democrats who cut interest rates on the school loans in 2007 and included an expiration provision that placed the looming increase in the middle of an election year.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan said Friday that more than 7 million students would be financially squeezed if rates were to rise, to the cost of an additional $1,000 on average.
Obama is visiting the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the University of Colorado at Boulder on Tuesday and the University of Iowa on Wednesday. The three schools are in states Obama won in 2008 but are in play this year in his race against the likely Republican nominee, Mitt Romney.
"In America, higher education cannot be a luxury," Obama said. "It's an economic imperative that every family must be able to afford." He argued that at a time of high joblessness, the rate of unemployment for Americans with a college degree is about half the national average. "It's never been more important," he said.
The courting of young voters will include an appearance on NBC's Late Night With Jimmy Fallon show, which will be taped while Obama is in North Carolina.
While Obama addressed education as his newest election-year theme, Republicans stuck to their criticism of Obama's energy policies. Citing still high gasoline prices, Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri said Obama is focusing on the wrong issues.
Blunt chided Obama and Senate Democrats in the GOP's weekend address for pushing unsuccessfully for a tax increase on millionaires instead of focusing on consumer pain at the pump. He pressed Obama to drop his opposition to the Keystone XL Canada-to-Texas oil pipeline, which the president blocked earlier this year. The administration says it is waiting for the pipeline developer, TransCanada, to submit a new route that avoids environmentally sensitive lands. The company unveiled a preferred route on Thursday.
"The Keystone pipeline is one common-sense step in the right direction to help put more people back to work, reduce prices at the pump and position our nation for greater energy security now and in the future," Blunt said.