Audience members at American University in Washington DC watch Chris Matthews interview President Obama, Dec. 5, 2013.
Photo by Charles Ommanney for MSNBC

Obama woos cautious college students toward Obamacare


With 18 days left to enroll in the Affordable Care Act for coverage by Jan. 1, Obama took his pitch directly to the people who can make or break his signature legislation: the young and healthy.

The commander-in-chief sat down for an interview at American University in Washington, D.C. with msnbc’s Chris Matthews and answered questions on a slew of subjects including healthcare, voter suppression, and the political dysfunction that has gripped Capitol Hill.

Obama was clearly eager to regain some of the lost goodwill he once had with young voters. Did it work? Students – at least those in the audience – seemed to be listening carefully.

The Greenberg Theatre was packed with approximately 300 students – several of whom said they were concerned about finding jobs after graduation and what Obama’s signature Affordable Care Act – and its troubled rollout – means for them.

Behind the Scenes with Chris Matthews and Barack Obama
Behind the Scenes with Chris Matthews and Barack Obama

“I’m interested in applying for Obamacare. But with all the  [technical] issues, I am hesitant to actually apply,” said Jeanna Lee, a 23-year-old law student at the school, who’s currently covered under her parents’ health plan.  Obama urged the students to “take a look for yourself” at the plans and Lee, a young Democrat on campus, said she was encouraged to do so.

Floyd Jones,  a 20-year-old junior studying international affairs at nearby George Washington University, said he had questioned Obama’s motives on the heath care plan. “I wasn’t sure if this was just a flagship thing that this administration was trying to get passed. What was evident today is that he really cares about the American people. I’m going to go to the website and find my facts.”

Obama’s interview with Matthews came as the White House embarks on a huge push to promote Obamacare. The Obama administration plans to hold an event every day until Dec. 23—the enrollment deadline for getting coverage by Jan. 1. 

Young Americans must be the backbone of Obamacare for the system to function, as it relies on younger, healthier Americans to buy insurance to offset the higher healthcare costs for older, sicker people. The White House has estimated that for the program to work, the president needs 40% of enrollees to be under 35 years old. Early numbers in states where data are available suggest that number is closer to 25%.

Meanwhile, a new Gallup poll shows Americans younger than 30 continue to be the least familiar with the law compared to all other age groups. Sixty-three percent said they are familiar with it, but that’s nine to 12 points lower than the other older demographics. 

That was a sentiment echoed by Matthew Grossman, a 21-year-old junior at AU.

“Honestly, I don’t know enough about it. I think that’s one of the problems. You know the name, but what does it actually do?” he asked before the speech. He said it was result of poor messaging by Obama. “They need to communicate it much better.”

msnbc data graphics
Overall, according to Gallup, Obama has been losing support among young voters. Just 42% of those between the ages of 18 and 29 approve of how Obama is handling the job. That’s a significant drop from the 64% approval rating Obama had from the same age group in January. 

On Wednesday, the president made another push to win young voters back, encouraging them to explain the benefits of his health care legislation to their friends and family. At a youth summit hosted by the White House Wednesday, he said: “I hope you haven’t been discouraged” by the glitch-filled website, which the Obama Administration says is now fixed.

Overall,  students’ disillusionment with government was evident. Matthews asked how many people in the room would choose politics as career. About one-fifth of hands went up and Obama encouraged them to do so. Politics can be “hard” and “frustrating,” the president said, and it requires thick skin.

But it’s “pretty hard to get greater satisfaction,” the president said, describing his own sense of accomplishment in passing meaningful legislation such as healthcare,

 Some at AU weren’t moved, including 20-year-old Chandler Thornton, the vice chair of the DC Federation of College Republicans.

“I think the president is losing a lot of momentum with millennials right now,” the political science major said. “It didn’t change my mind,” said Thornton. “It was, with all due respect, talking to the base and saying the same rhetoric and not trying to change the minds” of anyone.

At the end of the interview, Grossman and others decribed the economyy, rather healthcare, as the No. 1 concern.

After several internships, he said: “I’m still frightened that I’m not going to be able to get a job after college…I don’t feel like it’s a definite and that’s scary.” 

Hardball with Chris Matthews, 12/5/13, 6:59 PM ET

Why young people should like Obamacare

President Barack Obama joins Chris Matthews to discuss the benefits that young people can find in the Affordable Care Act.

Obama woos cautious college students toward Obamacare