CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — In this crucial swing state where the Democratic Party is racked by a sexual-harassment scandal, President Obama began a two-day tour Tuesday aimed partly at rallying college-age voters and got them to chant “amen” along with him by railing against student debt.
Mr. Obama visited the main campus of the University of North Carolina here to call on Congress to keep student-loan interest rates from doubling for 7.4 million young Americans on July 1.
“A higher education is the clearest path into the middle class,” Mr. Obama told a cheering throng of about 8,000 students at the school’s basketball arena. “We have to make college more affordable for our young people.”
He said Republicans’ priorities are giving tax breaks to big oil companies and Americans earning more than $1 million. Mr. Obama called on students to pressure Republican lawmakers to act, so students don’t rack up an additional $1,000 average cost in higher interest payments.
“That’s basically a tax hike for more than 7 million students across America,” Mr. Obama said. “Stopping this from happening should be a no-brainer. This shouldn’t be a partisan issue.”
Many lawmakers in both parties want to accomplish the goal of keeping student-loan rates at 3.4 percent, with the question centering on how to pay for the $6 billion cost of the measure. A White House spokesman said Tuesday that one good option would be a bill under discussion in the Senate to close a loophole for S-corporations, privately owned companies that avoid paying payroll taxes on part of their earnings.
Mr. Obama sympathized with the students in the audience for their heavy debt burden from higher interest rates and fewer grants, personalizing their situation with his own experience. He said in the first eight years of his marriage, he and wife Michelle were saddled with high student-loan payments.
“You rack up more debt. Can I get an a-men?” he said.
The crowd shouted in unison, “Amen!”
“We’ve got to make sure you’re not saddled with debt before you even get started,” said Mr. Obama, who avoided a discussion of the soaring federal debt.
But the chairman of the North Carolina Republican Party said the president should be back in Washington working to create jobs for students who will soon graduate from college.
“The president is running around, running for re-election,” said Chairman Robin Hayes. “One out of two students are not going to get jobs when they graduate — that’s the issue.”
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, said Mr. Obama’s policies have failed young people.
“You have to think that most of these students are sharp enough to put this president’s rhetoric up against his record and to conclude that it just doesn’t add up,” Mr. McConnell said. “As the promises of this president’s campaign collide with real life, I think young people across the country will realize they got sold a bill of goods. And that next time they’re promised change, they’ll know enough to kick the tires first.”
Replied White House press secretary Jay Carney, “I find it highly ironic that a United States senator who enthusiastically, with great gusto and energy, supported the policies of the previous administration that contributed mightily to the worst recession since the Great Depression, comes forward with a statement like that.”
Mr. Hayes said Mr. Obama is responsible for “anger and disillusionment” in North Carolina, arguing that the president and his re-election campaign should be “more forthcoming” and transparent about the sex scandal in the state Democratic Party.
Former North Carolina Democratic Party Executive Director Jay Parmley resigned April 15 amid sexual-harassment accusations from a young male staffer.
A former party staffer has said Mr. Parmley showed him a picture of a penis, gave him unwanted shoulder rubs and made unwanted sexual advances toward him. Mr. Parmley’s ex-girlfriend, in an interview with the Daily Caller, accused him of making her HIV-positive.
State party Chairman David Parker, also under pressure to quit his job over charges that he helped cover up Mr. Parmley’s harassment, has agreed to hold on until the party holds an election early next month. But Gov. Beverly Perdue has demanded several times that Mr. Parker quit immediately.
“The chairman needs to go,” she said. The governor later said she was “pleased” that Mr. Parker will leave his job next month.
The imbroglio is especially sensitive for Mr. Obama’s re-election team, which wants to win North Carolina again after pulling out a razor-thin victory in 2008. Democrats chose Charlotte, N.C., to host the Democratic National Convention in September.
After departing North Carolina, Mr. Obama headed for the University of Colorado in Boulder, where he was to make a similar pitch for keeping student-loan rates low. He will wrap up his trip Wednesday with a visit to the campus of the University of Iowa in Iowa City, his third swing state in two days.