BOULDER, Colo. - It’s four years after candidate Barack Obama originally energized college campuses. Today, loan debt and the prospect of unemployment weigh heavily on many of those once enthusiastic students.
Still, a visit by the president happens only once in a lifetime in this town, home of the University of Colorado. So Katy Day, a 22-year-old marketing major, stood in line for two hours waiting to get into the Coors Events Center on Tuesday.
Day was one of those aboard the Obama bandwagon four years ago.
“I was really hopeful,” she said. “Now I'm kind of ambivalent and apathetic about him coming today. Because not a lot has changed that affects me directly.”
Obama spoke directly to Day and many of the other students in the crowd of 11,000, noting the average student loan debt of $25,000. Day figures she'll be paying $250 to $300 a month to pay off her loans over the next 10 years. But she’s lucky — she’s got a job lined up in human resources with Target after graduation next month. Her boyfriend is still looking for work.
“He graduated in December and has zero job opportunities. He’s got in 200 to 300 applications."
Obama’s is only the second presidential visit to this heavily Democratic city of about 100,000 people 25 miles northwest of Denver. President Dwight Eisenhower visited in 1954 to dedicate the opening of one of several federal science labs in the city.
Chants of “four more years” and enthusiastic applause greeted Obama in the basketball arena. Several students said they came because it was a rare opportunity to see a sitting president.
“This was a great speech,” said Phil Millspaugh, a 21-year-old finance major. “I came in a little skeptical. He might have won my vote.”
Bobby Schwartz, 18, said Obama did a good job of relating to the crowd by noting that he and his wife paid off their student loans only eight years ago.
“A lot of what he talked about was really relevant to me,” Schwartz said. “I wouldn’t even be here without Pell grants and student loans.”
The president’s mission in Boulder and in other college towns, including Chapel Hill, N.C., on Tuesday and Iowa City on Wednesday, is about persuading Congress to extend an interest rate cut on federally backed student loans.
“Okay, I need to e-mail some congressmen,” one young woman was heard saying on her cellphone as she left the event.
Come fall, Obama the campaigner will need these students in his reelection effort — as voters and as volunteers. As The Fix pointed out, the president needs to maintain a decent margin among 18- to 29-year-old voters in his November race against presumptive GOP nominee Mitt Romney.
A visit to the Sink, a campus pizza and burger joint where Robert Redford once worked in the 1950s, played well before Tuesday’s speech. There, Obama posed for an instantly viral Instagram photo with student Madalyn Starkey, played with a local startup’s golf ball app (saying, “Excuse me, give me some space to drive my ball") and had yogurt spilled on his pants by a young woman.
Adults in the arena crowd didn’t seem as skeptical as some of the students. Carol Hermes, 70, said she volunteered for Obama’s campaign in 2008 and will again this year.
“I think it’s a really, really important election," Hermes said while standing in line. “I think he has probably done the best he could. He’s had such resistance, incredible resistance.”
For Andrea Banks, 46, the day ended as she got off a bus in north Boulder and walked home, eight hours after she showed up to volunteer as an usher at Coors Events Center.
“I think that four years ago there was enthusiasm earlier,” Banks said. “But as the campaign continues, they’re going to mobilize and energize people again.”
Sandra Fish teaches journalism at the University of Colorado and has reported on politics in Iowa, Florida and Colorado. Follow her on Twitter at @fishnette.