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Making student loans 'cool'

President Obama "slow jams the news?" Is this a nakedly bold pitch for the youth vote or what?

I'm talking about the president's appearance last week on "Late Night With Jimmy Fallon." In front of a live audience at the University of North Carolina, the nation's commander in chief took charge in "slow jamming the news," an occasional feature on the late-night talk show.

It consists of reciting some news of the day with anchorman seriousness while backup singers and The Roots, Fallon's house band, lay down some smooth jazz in the background, punctuated with appropriate repetitions of "baby."

The stunt posed a risk, even to Obama's famously cool stagecraft. Many middle-agers have bombed with lame attempts to sound cool in front of their children and other young 'uns. As a parent, I speak from hard-learned experience. But I can get away with it. It is part of my unwritten job description as a parent to embarrass my kid from time to time. Politicians in public aren't that lucky.

Obama wisely stuck to a familiar script. Speaking to his collegiate audience, he filled his slow jam with applause lines from his campus stump speeches in Iowa, Colorado and North Carolina -- three states that he won in 2008, but appear to be up for grabs now.

His main issue has strong appeal to the hearts and wallets of college students, postgrads and their families: student loans. It also has a new urgency at the moment. Unless Congress acts, the current subsidized rates on new Stafford student loans will expire in July, doubling the rate borrowers pay to 6.8 percent from 3.4 percent. That difference amounts to an average increase of $1,000 per year per student.

Obama needs to rekindle the Yes-We-Can enthusiasm among young voters that propelled him to the Oval Office in 2008. He has a 17-percentage point advantage over his presumptive Republican rival Mitt Romney among voters 18 to 29, according to a nationwide poll by Harvard University's Institute of Politics. But almost a third in that age group is undecided. Obama has an advantage with under-30 voters that he needs to energize to offset his deficits with older voters, particularly white, blue-collar males.

One wonders how Romney might attempt to reach more Millennials, as many are calling the first youngsters to come of age in this century. He could try another David Letterman "Top 10 List."

Romney is better off playing it straight, as when he offered a straightforward response to Obama's position on student loans that amounted to two words: Me, too. "I fully support the effort to extend the low interest rate on student loans," he told reporters in what may be his first major move toward the middle as Republican front-runner.

That's a switch from his earlier support of the Republican budget plan proposed last month by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, a plan that calls for removing the subsidies that keep Stafford loan rates low.

And Speaker John Boehner appeared to be moving toward the middle, too, as he rushed a mostly party-line vote on a $5.9 billion bill to maintain low interest rates for Stafford loans. But familiar partisan disputes erupted over the measure's funding. The money would come from a provision of Obama's health care law for breast cancer screening and other preventive measures. Democrats wanted to fund the bill by cutting oil subsidies.

Take careful notes, students. As the clock ticks away, your student loan rates may well be the prize in Congress' next big partisan faceoff.

Choose your own background music.