BINGHAMTON -- On the second day of his bus tour of upstate New York, President Barack Obama Friday called for limiting college-student debt and prodding states to spend more on higher education, and suggested that law schools consider a switch to two-year programs instead of three.
Pushing across the state on a theme of college affordability, Obama held a "town hall"-style meeting with about 300 to 400 students and faculty at the University at Binghamton. On his way there, the president made two stops to help show his common touch: he worked out at a YMCA in Auburn and stopped in on soccer practice at Tully Senior High School, knocking the ball around with students and even trying a penalty kick.
The president continued the tour Friday afternoon in Scranton, Pa.
In Binghamton, Obama repeated his plan to launch a ratings system for colleges based in part on affordability and to create incentives to reduce student debt.
"We're going to cap the monthly payment you have to make at 10 percent of your income," Obama told the audience. "That way, it's manageable. You don't have to make career decisions based on how you can pay back your student loan."
Throughout the summer, the White House has been seeking to keep Obama's public agenda centered on middle-class economic issues as a way to rally public support for his positions before looming fiscal battles with congressional Republicans. At each stop, the president has stressed that higher education "is the surest path to the middle class" and warned Republicans not to be "penny-wise and pound-foolish" by cutting spending for education, scientific research and infrastructure.
He said soaring college costs threaten to take away that path for too many. He said Congress -- and states -- must act now before higher education becomes unobtainable for a large portion of the country.
"Not all the reforms we are going to propose are going to be popular," he said, triggering mild laughter. "Part of our goal is to stir a conversation -- because the current path we are on is unsustainable."
Obama said though he didn't incur much debt in his undergraduate days, he left Harvard University Law School with about $60,000 in loans and didn't finish repaying till he was in his 40s.
Speaking off the cuff, Obama said: "I think law schools would be wise to think about being two years instead of three." He said law students might be better off spending that third year working as clerks to practicing lawyers.
Questions during the town hall meeting also touched on energy and the 50th anniversary of the civil rights March on Washington and Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech.
Though opponents and proponents of natural gas drilling demonstrated on the SUNY campus, Obama didn't directly get into the debate. The president, a natural gas supporter, said the country should first go after "low-hanging fruit" such as energy efficiency that could reduce consumption by 20 percent or more.
Energy efficiency, he said, wasn't just the stuff of "tree-hugging, sprout-eating university professors," garnering laughs.
Later Friday, Obama headed to Joe Biden's hometown of Scranton, Pa., for a joint event with the vice president. The rally marked Biden's first public event since his son Beau, the Delaware attorney general, underwent tests this week at a cancer center in Texas.
"My son Beau is doing fine," Biden told the cheering hometown crowd.
The president and vice president's appearance coincided with the five-year anniversary of the day Obama announced Biden as his running mate in the 2008 presidential campaign.
"It was the best decision I ever made politically," Obama said.
With Pool and wire reports