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Has Obama Lost His Best Chance to Rally the Youth Vote?

Congressional leaders announced last week—after months of bickering—that they finally reached a deal to prevent student loan rates from doubling, just days before the July 1 deadline. This may be good news for the many Americans who are currently suffering from an aggregate total of over a trillion dollars in student loan debt. But it's decidedly more ambiguous for one of the loudest supporters of the issue: President Obama.

As we know, the youth vote was a crucial part of Obama’s successful 2008 coalition. This year, pollsters have confirmed that the youth vote is still incredibly important. But they’ve also determined that it’s highly unreliable. Gallup reported in late April that while Obama leads Romney by 35 points among 18-29 year olds, only 6 in 10 eligible voters in that age group are registered to vote and only 56 percent of those registered report that they will definitely show up to the polls in November. Indeed, any informal survey of students about this year’s race yields dispiriting conclusions: Young voters are much less excited about 2012 than they were about 2008. Further underscoring the point is a recent New York Times article discussing the ideological toll that the recession has taken on voters between the ages of 18 and 24. On the whole, they've become more skeptical of government intervention in the economy.

Such inauspicious polling is certainly relevant in considering the President’s extended campaign against the rise in loan rates. The clever Twitter hashtags (#dontdoublemyrate), probing Facebook posts, and impassioned stump speeches have been clearly aimed at exciting the youth vote, allowing the President to contrast himself against an incredibly dysfunctional Congress and to paint himself as an above-the-fray defender of the interests of young Americans. One instance came at a Campus Progress event last week, where Obama told the crowd, “It’s mind boggling that we’ve had the stalemate in Washington that threatens to make the situation even worse.”

The fact that a deal was finally struck suggests that Obama may not be able to use the issue any longer as a means of rallying young people to vote for him. The President does still have an opening, however—namely, the fact that the deal balances the loans through a series of unpopular concessions, some of which may in fact hurt students in the long run. While students have previously had a grace period on repaying student loans during the first six months following graduation, students will now be expected to begin repaying their loans right away. Further, graduate students taking out loans from the federal government will now have to pay interest while they’re in school. (Previously, the government subsidized interest rates while students were enrolled.) By speaking out against the compromises hashed out in Congress, Obama may be able to counter the apathy that young people are currently feeling about the election. 

Crucially, the student loan debacle has also allowed the President to mount a plausible attack against Mitt Romney—who has expressed support for increasing access to higher education, but has thus far laid out few specifics about how he intends to accomplish that goal—as a threat to America’s college students. Mitt Romney’s comment that students should “get as much education as they can afford” only serves to make Obama’s case for him.

While it looks like Obama will have won a policy victory by the end of this ordeal, it's an open question to what degree he'll find himself on the winning side of this as a political issue. It seems safe to say though that this will continue to be a top concern for the campaign. One way or another, if it hopes to win the youth vote, the campaign will have to keep drawing distinctions on the student loan issue between Obama, Congress, and Governor Romney.