SYRACUSE, N.Y. — In a bus tour across the state of New York on Thursday, President Obama sought to repair the immense damage this year’s NSA scandal has done to his reputation among his college-age base by going to battle with the biggest villains in many students’ lives: college administrators.
Briefly put, Obama proposes redefining the way the federal government interacts with colleges and college students to focus on value and results. The president called for a government college-rating system that lists schools based on factors like the amount of debt average students carry and the amount of money they make when they graduate. At the same time, Obama called for tying aid to student achievement to ensure that students don’t rack up debt they can’t pay back. Finally, the president called for expanding the program aimed at keeping student loan payments limited to 10% of discretionary income.
Casting the new plan as a righteous crusade against the educational powers that be, Obama repeatedly made the case that he was on their side.
“I’ve got to tell you ahead of time, these reforms won’t be popular with everybody, especially those who are making out just fine under the current system,” Obama said at the first rally of the day, on the campus of SUNY Buffalo. “But my main concern is not with those institutions. My main concern is the students those institutions are there to serve, because this country is only going to be as strong as our next generation.”
But while the students cheered Obama’s aggressive push on college tuition, the NSA surveillance scandal that has consumed his presidency for months — with its echoes of the same Bush-era policies that inflamed college campuses with indignation — loomed large.
“I think the rating system was pretty awesome,” said Nick Johns, the 20-year-old student body president at the Buffalo university, referring to a key component of Obama’s college affordability plan. “It really showed us what kind of goals he has. It wasn’t just empty promises, he had something to back it up too.”
But Johns said his friends have been upset with the NSA revelations, and that many of them have aimed their outrage at the Oval Office. “It has definitely had a significant impact in a lot of people’s views on him, especially since he started off his term with taking a strong stance against the violation of privacy,” he said.
“Coming from such a very liberal president on so many other issues, it was surprising and bit shocking for us to have that information come out,” he said. “Obviously security is a huge goal in this country, but…the fact that people found out from a leak definitely affected myself and my friends’ feelings about that aspect of his administration.”
Polling has shown a dip in Obama’s approval rating in recent months, with some surveys showing a more pronounced dip among younger voters, a core part of Obama’s political army since he first rose to national prominence. Some have attributed the slide in part to the NSA controversy, which polling has found pits young supporters of Edward Snowden against Obama, who has called for his prosecution.
On his bus tour, which stopped at SUNY Buffalo, a Rochester diner, and a Syracuse high school, chasing downpours across the state, Obama tried to get close to the college kids once again by promising to pull no punches with the people sending them tuition bills.
Obama called for a new, federally administered college-rating system that will focus on “value,” helping students pick schools that will give them the biggest bang for their buck. He took a swipe at existing college ratings.
“Right now, private rankings — like, the U.S. News and World Report puts out each year their rankings, and it encourages a lot of colleges to focus, ‘How do we game the numbers?’” Obama said in Buffalo. “And, you know, it actually rewards them in some cases for raising costs. I think we should rate colleges based on opportunity.”
The students seemed excited to see him. Both the Buffalo and Syracuse stop shared a similar light moment when students began to scream as an announcer introduced the first speaker only to see the scream cut off when the first speaker turned out to be Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who gave brief remarks at both stops. The cheer would resume when Obama finally showed up.
Doug Usher, a pollster with the bipartisan firm Purple Strategies, said strong rhetoric on college costs is a rare no-brainer when it comes to wooing the youth vote.
“If you’re going to target young people with a specific policy prescription, this is one of the best ones,” he said. “College costs is a clear winner, especially talking about loans and debt and that sort of thing. It’s one of the few issues that you can so discreetly pull out as directly affecting younger people than just about anybody else in the electorate.”
Usher isn’t sold on the idea that the dip in Obama’s polling with young people is due to the NSA scandal. Indeed, some polling has shown young people are less likely to expect privacy when going online than older people.
“[The NSA] is a big deal, but I don’t know how big a deal it is when compared to all the other things not happening in Washington, the economy improving but not as strong as what was expected plus turmoil overseas,” he said. “I think it’s one thing, but it’s not the driving factor.”
Young Obama voters along the president’s route didn’t just talk about the NSA. Some are still looking for Obama to live up to a more progressive ideal. Despite the frustrations, they’re holding out hope.
“The great evil of our time is plutocracy,” said Lyle Rubin, a 30-year-old former Marine and Ph.D. student at the University of Rochester. “We’re in need of leaders who understand this, and act on it — politicians like Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, and Bill de Blasio. Do I count Barack Obama among them? No, I do not.”
But Rubin’s not ready to give up on the president.
“If he picks Janet Yellen over Larry Summers for Fed chair, I might be willing to give him one last shot,” he said.