Obama signs student loan overhaul

By Anne E. Kornblut
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 31, 2010; A02

Is the spring back in President Obama's step?

On Tuesday, with audience members shouting "fired up!" and not a protester in sight, Obama signed a broad overhaul of higher education funding into law along with the last portion of the health-care bill. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and second lady Jill Biden joined him onstage for what amounted to a Democratic love-fest.

Obama had flown back from a surprise trip to Kabul a day earlier, and in an appearance on NBC's "Today" show that aired Tuesday morning, he challenged Afghan President Hamid Karzai to apply the "fierce urgency of now" to cleaning up the country. Over the weekend, Obama made more than a dozen recess appointments, signaling his willingness to challenge Congress. Later this week, the president will travel to Maine and North Carolina, two swing states -- getting out of the White House bubble and back into the campaign mode that he prefers.

It may be too soon to tell whether the conventional wisdom -- that Obama changed the course of his presidency with the passage of his health-care bill -- is correct. But with its completion, the president has finally turned to other things and is enjoying the moment of triumph, albeit in his understated way.

At the bill signing in Alexandria on Tuesday morning, Obama heralded "two major victories in one week," on health care and education, choosing to dwell on the latter.

"What has gotten overlooked amid all the hoopla, all the drama of last week, is what happened in education -- when a great battle pitting the interests of the banks and financial institutions against the interests of students finally came to an end," Obama said. ". . . This week, we can rightly say the foundation on which America's future will be built is stronger than it was one year ago."

"Yes we can!" a man in the audience hollered.

The ebullient mood was evident even before Obama arrived. As Democratic lawmakers filed in, audience members leapt to their feet at the sight of Pelosi, giving a roaring standing ovation of the kind typically reserved for the president. "Yay, Nancy!" one man shouted.

Pelosi vigorously clapped back at the crowd as camera flashes popped. When Obama later singled Pelosi out, calling her "amazing," the crowd jumped to its feet again. (Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) got a standing ovation, too).

The bill Obama signed overhauls higher education financing, doubling funding for Pell grants, allowing students to borrow directly from the government and easing payment structures once they graduate. Loan repayments will be capped at 10 percent of a graduate's salary, down from the current 15 percent, starting in 2014. The measure, Obama said, will save the country $68 billion that would otherwise have been spent on "middlemen" -- financial institutions that previously managed the loans.

"That's real money," he said.

Earlier that morning, in a taped interview broadcast on the "Today" show, Obama suggested that he might be able to win over elements of the "tea party" movement, the conservative activist network that appeared after his election and that has fiercely opposed much of his agenda.

Choosing his words with caution, Obama said the movement consists of a core group of people who are "just dug in ideologically," but also a broader group that has more ordinary political concerns over such matters as the deficit.

"Some of them, I think, have some mainstream, legitimate concerns," he said, "and my hope is that as we move forward and we're tackling things like the deficit and imposing a freeze on domestic spending and taking steps that show we're sincere about dealing with our long-term problems, that some of that group will dissipate."

Obama set the bill-signing at Northern Virginia Community College -- in a politically important corner of a swing state, and at a school where Jill Biden, the wife of Vice President Biden, teaches.

Biden introduced Obama with an ambitious goal. "By 2020, we want America once again to have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world," she said.

"Thank you, Dr. Biden, for that outstanding introduction -- and for putting up with Joe," Obama said.

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