In a speech that unveiled his administration’s plans to make it easier for college students to repay student loans, President Barack Obama on Wednesday at the University of Colorado Denver assailed Republican lawmakers for blocking a jobs program he said will put millions of Americans to work and spur a moribund economy.
During his second visit to Colorado in a month, an upbeat Obama joked about the freshly fallen snow that blanketed the Auraria campus — a stark contrast to the record heat that greeted his speech at the end of September in a parking lot outside Denver’s Abraham Lincoln High School when several supporters were overcome by the heat — but trained serious fire on congressional opponents.
“The truth is, the only way we can attack our economic challenges on the scale that’s necessary — the only way we can put hundreds of thousands of people, millions of people, back to work — is if Congress is willing to cooperate with the executive branch and we are able to do some bold action — like passing the jobs bill,” Obama thundered to the crowd of about 4,000 students and other supporters packed into a gymnasium. “That’s what we need!”
Over rounds of enthusiastic applause, Obama asked the students to help urge Republican lawmakers to hold votes on what he called “common-sense, paid-for jobs proposals.” He told the crowd to send a message to Congress: “I’m going to need you guys to be out there calling and tweeting and all the stuff you do.”
Faced with recalcitrant Republicans who control the House and hold a near-constant filibuster threat over action in the Senate, Obama said a proposal he was announcing in Denver was part of a plan to use administrative fiat to get around legislative logjams.
“Listen,” Obama said, “we’re not going to wait. We’re not waiting for Congress. Last month, when I addressed a joint session of Congress about our jobs crisis, I said I intend to do everything in my power right now to act on behalf of the American people — with or without Congress. We can’t wait for Congress to do its job. So where they won’t act, I will.”
He then ticked off a list of steps he said his administration was taking to fix problems Congress wouldn’t, including offering states flexibility meeting federal education standards, accelerating payments on federal contracts to small businesses, cutting regulations that apply to hospitals, and initiating a program to find jobs for veterans.
At a stop a day earlier in Nevada, Obama announced plans to encourage homeowners underwater on their mortgages to refinance their loans. He followed up in Denver by announcing measures to make it easier for some college students to repay student loans by accelerating a plan set to go into effect in 2014 that will let some students pay a smaller portion of their income and another that will let certain borrowers consolidate different types of student loans.
“I’ve told my administration we’re going to look every single day to figure out what we can do without Congress,” he said. “What can we do without them? Steps that can save you money, and make government more efficient and responsive, and help heal this economy.” He said he plans to announce new steps on a regular basis and then launched into the reason he was standing in front of thousands of cheering Auraria students. “That’s why I came to Denver today — to do something that will be especially important to all of you here at CU Denver and millions of students — and former students — all across America.”
The first part of Obama’s plan will allow some students to cap their monthly student loan payments at 10 percent of their disposable income, down from 15 percent under current programs, and allows for loan forgiveness after 20 years instead of the current 25 years. He said the plan will go into effect at the start of next year, two years earlier than scheduled, a move he said would make college more affordable and get more money moving in the economy.
“Because of this change, about 1.6 million Americans could see their payments go down by hundreds of dollars a month — and that includes some of the students who are here today,” he said.
The second part of the plan Obama announced in Denver involves allowing some students to combine federally backed loans with direct federal loans while at the same time knocking as much as a half a point off interest rates. Again, he suggested the measure won’t just make things easier on indebted graduates, it will help spur the economy.
“When a big chunk of every paycheck goes towards student loans instead of being spent on other things, that’s not just tough for middle-class families, it’s painful for the economy and it’s harmful to our recovery because that money is not going to help businesses grow,” Obama said.
In addition, he said the federal government will start making available to all students a fact sheet called “Know Before You Owe,” containing “all the information you need to make your own decisions about how to pay for college.” In one of several references to the student loan debt that he and his wife, First Lady Michelle Obama, faced upon graduation, he added, “I promise you, I wish Michelle and I had had that when we were in your shoes.”
The night before, Obama attended a pair of pricey fundraisers at the Pepsi Center, site of the 2008 Democratic National Convention, where he won the nomination to run for president. Democratic sources said an estimated 350 donors attended a reception and dinner that boasted ticket prices as high as $35,000 a seat but wouldn’t say how much the events raised.
Obama and his entourage spent the night at the brand-new Four Seasons Denver hotel in downtown. He was introduced at various events by U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, Gov. John Hickenlooper and Denver Mayor Michael Hancock, though UCD student Mahala Greer — who told the crowd she worries about her roughly $30,000 in student loan debt — had the honors at the Auraria Events Center speech.
The frequent visits to Colorado — a state that threw its nine electoral votes to Obama in 2008, only the second time a Democrat had won them in more than four decades — underline the state’s importance in a re-election strategy that could hinge on the state.
Obama faces a difficult road ahead in the state, which turned a deep shade of red in last year’s midterm elections. But a poll released by the liberal Project New West organization this week showed that Obama is viewed more positively than any of his potential Republican opponents, especially among the state’s unaffiliated and Hispanic voters.
The poll, conducted by Keating Research late last month, said that 49 percent of likely Colorado voters view Obama positively, while 45 percent take a negative view. Top GOP contender Mitt Romney, who swept the Colorado Republican caucuses in 2008 when he first ran for president, is viewed favorably by 40 percent and unfavorably by 38 percent. Texas Gov. Rick Perry performs worse, with only 29 percent liking him and 38 percent thinking otherwise.
The poll has a margin of error of plus-or-minus 4.3 percent and allocated its sample of likely voters similar to the turnout in last year’s election: 37 percent registered Republicans, 33 percent registered Democrats and 29 percent registered unaffiliated.
Republican Party officials laid out a cold welcome mat to Obama in the state.
GOP national chairman Reince Priebus, who has said Colorado will be one of a handful of key battleground states in next year’s election, scoffed at Obama’s round of proposals.
“Obama is again in Colorado touting his supposed quote unquote ‘we can’t wait tour,’” the Wisconsin Republican said in a conference call with reporters about an hour before Obama spoke to the students. “We can’t wait for him to stop worrying about his job and start worrying about getting this economy back on track. We can’t wait for this president to start putting Americans first, instead of his failed liberal policies.”
Colorado Republican Party chairman Ryan Call poked similarly at the same theme during the call.
“Time after time it’s been consistently too little, too late and his policies have not only failed to address the problems facing Colorado citizens, but, in most cases, they’ve made things dramatically worse,” he said. He added that he’s confident Colorado voters will side with Republicans when it comes time to decide who should lead the country.