President Obama sets off on a two-day tour of college campuses Tuesday to tout a plan to keep student loans more affordable.
The trip is billed as official business, but it has a political flavor. Stops include: North Carolina, where Democrats hold their national convention this summer; Colorado, where Obama accepted his party's nomination four years ago; and Iowa, where his White House campaign was launched in 2008.
All three states are expected to be hard-fought battlegrounds in November.
Obama is rolling out an economic message that's squarely aimed at college students and their parents. He's urging Congress to preserve the low interest rate on subsidized student loans. Unless lawmakers act, the rate is scheduled to double July 1.
Obama says that would mean higher college bills for more than 7 million students: "At a time when the unemployment rate for Americans with at least a college degree is about half the national average, it's never been more important. But here's the thing: It's also never been more expensive."
After delivering that argument Saturday in his weekly radio address, Obama is taking it on the road — to college basketball arenas, where he'll be speaking to thousands of people.
Lauren Hovis, who's with the Young Democrats at the University of North Carolina, says fans began queuing up Saturday night.
"The line was extremely long to get tickets," she says. "So I think it's actually, we're really pumped and we're really excited about Obama."
The president needs that kind of excitement this fall, if he's to come anywhere close to matching the support he got from young voters four years ago.
"These folks were so, so, so enthusiastic for Barack Obama in 2008," says Charlie Cook, a political forecaster. He adds that Obama not only won the youth vote by 34 points that year, but young voters also turned out in near-record numbers — with a passion that will be hard to replicate this year.
"It was such a historic thing; it really galvanized young voters. And I don't sense that electricity is there," Cook says.
Katherine Valde heads the student Democrats at the University of Iowa, where Obama speaks Wednesday. She admits that some of the high hopes from four years ago — for immigration overhaul or climate change policy, for example — have not been met. What's more, the tough economic climate has put a damper on college activism.
"People just don't necessarily have the time to go out and volunteer for campaigns right now," she says. "People are worried about finding jobs after they graduate, and a lot of people are having trouble finding jobs."
The job market for new college graduates is improving, though, and a college degree is still a big plus for anyone looking for work.
A couple of weeks ago, the Obama campaign hosted an organizational meeting in Iowa City. Valde says about 200 students showed up, and they're busy making plans for outreach efforts this fall.
Tuesday night, the president speaks at the University of Colorado. Tyler Quick, who just stepped down as head of the college Democrats there, anticipates another close contest, much like the Senate race in Colorado two years ago.
"It was just a few thousand votes that helped Michael Bennet win his Senate seat. If we can get the same people that turned out for Sen. Bennet to turn out for President Obama, we can make sure that Colorado stays blue this year," Quick says.
It wasn't just young voters that helped elect Bennet. His winning coalition, like the president's, also included Latinos and African-Americans.
Demographer Ruy Teixeira of the left-leaning Center for American Progress says that's a growing pool of potential voters around the country. But he warns that potential alone is not enough.
"There's no doubt that demographic shifts are by and large in Obama's favor. But if the share of voters is to increase among minorities, for example, they have to show up," Teixeira says.
The president's supporters say that takes hard work — when the economy is soft and some of the promise of four years ago has gone unfilled.
Meanwhile, Republican White House hopeful Mitt Romney is not about to yield the youth vote to Obama. On Monday, Romney joined the president in supporting low interest rates on college loans.
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