By Matt Spetalnick
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama will use a tour of three election battleground states next week to push Congress to prevent the doubling of interest rates on federal student loans -- an effort aimed at re-energizing his support among younger voters.
Obama will speak at universities in North Carolina, Colorado and Iowa, the White House said on Friday. All three states are considered critical to his re-election chances, and the youth vote is one of his key constituencies.
The two-day trip is part of a campaign by the Obama administration to get Congress to extend low interest rates on college loans to more than 7.4 million students.
If lawmakers fail to act, rates on the loans will double on July 1 to 6.8 percent -- this at a time when other loans boast near-record-low rates, with the average for a 30-year mortgage standing at 3.9 percent this week.
The new push jibes with the White House's strategy of casting the Democratic president as a champion of the middle class, to draw a contrast with congressional Republicans and Mitt Romney, his wealthy Republican presidential challenger.
"At a time when Americans owe more on student loans than credit cards, President Obama believes we must reward hard work and responsibility by keeping interest rates on student loans low so more Americans get a fair shot at an affordable college education," the White House said in a statement.
Republicans insist that Democrats created the problem in the first place when they controlled Congress and passed a bill that cut rates on subsidized Stafford loans in 2007 but allowed them to revert back to higher levels after four years.
Despite a bitterly partisan climate in Washington that has mostly stalled Obama's legislative agenda, a spokesman for House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner, the top Republican in Congress, held out the prospect of bipartisan cooperation.
"The rising cost of tuition is a serious problem for students and their families, so it's unfortunate that Washington Democrats put in place a law that would double student loan rates," the Boehner aide, Brendan Buck, said.
"That's why Republicans and Democrats on both sides of Capitol Hill will be working on this issue in the coming months," he said.
Democrats in the Republican-controlled House put the onus on Republicans for failing to act so far to extend the lower rates.
"Despite calls to work together to prevent this from happening, House Republicans have so far taken no action," Democratic members of the House Education and Workforce Committee said on their website.
Mark Kantrowitz, a college financial-aid expert, sees the issue as mostly election-year posturing by Obama's Democrats aimed at middle-class voters.
"It's timed perfectly to come up this year," he said. "If they pass an extension, they can claim victory. If it gets blocked, as is likely, they can blame the opponents. Either way they win."
Obama is also seeking to rekindle the enthusiasm of younger voters who helped sweep him into the White House in the 2008 election. Stubbornly high U.S. unemployment has helped chip away at some of his support among young people.
In appealing to the youth bloc, Obama - while in North Carolina on Tuesday at the start of his three-state swing -- will tape an appearance on NBC's "Late Night with Jimmy Fallon" to talk about the student-loan issue.
The White House also plans a social media campaign through Facebook, Twitter and Google+.
(Additional reporting by Susan Heavey and Thomas Ferraro; Editing by David Brunnstrom)