President Barack Obama seemed to strike all the right notes Friday at Washington-Lee High School when he delivered a speech designed to put pressure on Congress to keep student loan interest rates down.
The president spoke before an enthusiastic crowd of more than 1,000 junior and senior high school students, parents, faculty and local elected officials. Nearly 94 percent of Washington-Lee students go on to some sort of higher education upon graduation.
Obama spoke briefly about the economy in general before specifically talking about college affordability.
On July 1, a student loan interest rate cut will expire — effectively doubling rates overnight — unless Congress acts, Obama said.
He was answered with resounding "boos."
"That's like a $1,000 tax hike for more than 7 million students around the country," Obama said. "You guys shouldn't have to pay an extra $1,000 because Congress can't get its act together."
House Republicans will only prevent rates from doubling if they can cut things like preventative health care for women, the president said, earning a second round of "boos." The country shouldn't have to choose between the two, the president said, this time answered with cheering.
The president had to pause multiple times for applause or, in some cases, laughter, as he made the case that keeping higher education affordable was directly tied to rebuilding the economy.
Obama told his own story of struggling with student loan debt, and said he and the first lady just finished paying off their student loans about eight years ago. The two entered the world of work with a "truckload" of student debt, loans they were still paying off when they were starting to save up for their children's education.
"We got married. And together we got poor," he said.
But, he added, the couple was only able to get where they are today thanks to scholarships and student loans.
"This country gave us a chance at a good education. This country has always made the commitment to put a good education within the reach of everybody who is willing to work for it. That's the kind of investment in our own people that helps us lead the world," he said.
Americans now owe more on student loans than they do on credit cards, he said.
"I don't want you to start off life saddled with debt," the president said to raucous applause. "Because if you start off that way, it means a lot of really tough choices — like waiting longer to buy a house or start a family."
The president called on students to send a message to Congress: "Tell them, 'Don't double my rates.' "
Obama told the young men and women to call, email, post on Facebook and tweet using the hashtag #dontdoublemyrate to get the message across.
"I want you guys to realize that your voice makes a difference. Your voice matters," he said. "I know sometimes it seems like it doesn't. But members of Congress — they listen. And if they start hearing from a lot of folks, sometimes it changes their mind. Sometimes it changes their vote."
Though billed by the White House as official business, the president seemed to connect with his audience in a way that was reminiscent of his 2008 campaign. Obama will formally kick off his reelection bid this weekend with events in Richmond and Columbus, Ohio.
He played to the young crowd well, getting a thunderous reaction when he recognized the graduating class, next year's rising seniors and the upcoming prom. He gave them a stern look when a low rumble greeted his remarks about upcoming final exams, or on the importance of studying math and science.
"You're solid on math," Obama asked one student who grumbled. "OK, that's good."
The president was introduced by Amirah Delwin, one of three students Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan met with privately before his speech.
Each student was allowed to bring one parent.
"It's very exciting for our students to listen to our nation's leader," said Julie Crawford, assistant superintendent for student services. "It's a timely topic, certainly."
Read more: Obama Visit 'Makes Politics Real'
Click here to see a photo gallery from today's event.
And click here for a transcript of today's speech as released by the White House.