Mitt Romney has been careful to stake out the middle ground in the student loan fight this week, quickly capitulating to the White House’s position that Congress extend low interest rates to millions of Americans. That put him squarely at odds with House Republicans — a fact that President Obama has delighted in pointing out in speeches.
Twice in the last week, Obama used anecdotes from ultra-conservative members of Congress discussing the loan fight, ignoring Romney in favor of tarnishing the Republican brand with its most incendiary members.
On Tuesday it was Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-NC), who Obama cited prominently in a speech to students in her own state at the University of North Carolina.
“She said she had ‘very little tolerance for people who tell me they graduate with debt because there’s no reason for that.’ I’m just quoting here,” Obama said, highlighting a radio interview Foxx gave earlier that week. “The students who rack up student loan debt are just ‘sitting on their butts having opportunity dumped in your lap.’ I’m reading it here. I didn’t make this up.”
He pounced. “Now, can you imagine saying something like that? Those of you who’ve had to take out student loans, you didn’t do it because you’re lazy. You didn’t do it lightly. You don’t like debt. A lot of you, your parents are helping out, but it’s tough on them. They’re straining. And so you do it because the cost of college keeps going up and you know there’s an investment in your future.”
The next day at the University of Iowa, he gave another tea party lawmaker the same treatment. This time, Obama singled out Rep. Todd Akin (R-MO), who days earlier had suggested Congress might already have impeached Obama if not for “tactical concerns.” The quote Obama highlighted, however, was a line he made in a Senate debate in which Akin called government involvement in student loans “stage three cancer of socialism.”
“Sometimes I like just getting these quotes because I am always interested in how folks talk about this issue,” Obama said. “You have got one member of Congress who compared these student loans, I am not kidding here, to a stage three cancer of socialism. Stage three cancer. I don’t know where to start. What do you mean? What are you talking about? Come on. Just when you think you heard it all in Washington, somebody comes up with a new way to go off the deep end.”
Neither Republican lawmaker was too happy to see his or her words be held up as a laugh line for college audiences. Foxx complained to the Washington Post that she was taken out of context — her full quote was that she had “very little tolerance for people who tell me that they graduate with $200,000 of debt or even $80,000 of debt because there’s no reason for that,” suggesting that students should only seek educational opportunities within their means.
Akin also took umbrage with the context Obama provided.
“With all due respect, the president misquoted me. I was not saying that student loans are a cancer. I referred to the policies where there is a government takeover of private industries,” he said in a statement. “I suspect the president was given a misquotation of what I actually said, but I am sure we have a fundamental disagreement on the role of government and what constitutes socialism regarding current public policy.”
Obama’s sudden interest in the House GOP is tactical. The campaign has largely pivoted away from attacking Romney as a flip-flopper in recent weeks and focused instead on introducing him to general election voters as a “severely” conservative candidate in line with the tea party. By constantly pitting him against the most far-right members of his party, especially in the extremely conservative and even more extremely unpopular House, he can try to either tie Romney to the right or force a wedge with his fellow Republicans — for example, by getting the candidate to break with the House caucus on student loans.