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Now, President Obama's been on the road this week. For the last couple of days, he's toured New York and Pennsylvania by bus to promote his college affordability plan. As NPR's Scott Horsley reports, the trip was also the opening salvo in an upcoming budget battle with congressional Republicans.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: The bus tour had a back-to-school theme. But in some places the president was a few days early. On Thursday, Obama spoke to a packed high school gym in Syracuse, where the fall semester has not yet begun.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I know you're still on summer vacation. You've got a few more days. So, taking the time to be here when you've still got a little bit, that last little bit of summer break, that's a big deal.

HORSLEY: Obama can appreciate how the Syracuse students feel, since Congress is also on its own extended summer recess, offering a temporary respite from the long-running battle over government spending levels. Obama told a town hall meeting in Binghamton, New York when lawmakers return next month, he'll keep pushing to restore funding for Head Start and other programs that have been squeezed by across-the-board budget cuts.

OBAMA: When we get back to Washington, when Congress gets back to Washington, this is going to be a major debate. It's the same debate we've been having for the last two years. The difference is now, deficits are already coming down.

HORSLEY: Obama acknowledged that rising health care costs still pose a long-term challenge for the federal budget, but he argues there's no immediate crisis. In the short term, the tide of red ink is rapidly receding, though some lawmakers continue to insist on additional cuts.

OBAMA: Unfortunately, right now, the federal budget generally has been a political football in Washington.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (unintelligible) Keep your feet away. nice.

HORSLEY: Speaking of foot-ball, the president surprised the girls' soccer team yesterday at Tully High School in New York.

(APPLAUSE)

OBAMA: How's it going, everybody?

HORSLEY: The president talked with the soccer players about sports and summer jobs. And then he turned to the main message of this bus tour: college affordability.

OBAMA: I'm assuming everybody here is going to want to go to college.

GROUP: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

HORSLEY: Obama says higher education is the best investment young people can make in their future, but with tuition costs outstripping paychecks, many families face an unpleasant choice between a heavy debt load or skipping college altogether.

OBAMA: Assuming not everybody gets a soccer scholarship.

(LAUGHTER)

OBAMA: But some of you may.

HORSLEY: Obama's plan includes a new ratings system to help families find the best bargains in college. He also wants to use those ratings to steer federal aid, though that part of the proposal would require approval from Congress.

OBAMA: You know, that's always challenging but these are ideas that should have bipartisan support. Of course, so should Obamacare. It's actually a really good idea. It's gonna work.

(APPLAUSE)

HORSLEY: The final stop on the president's bus tour was Lackawanna College in Scranton, Pennsylvania, the hometown of Vice President Biden. Obama noted that it was five years ago yesterday that he first publicly announced Biden would be his running mate. The vice president joined Obama on that last leg of the tour and it was a happy homecoming for the blue-collar Biden, who's mulling his own bid for the White House in 2016.

VICE PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: The people who grew up in neighborhoods like this one, the one I grew up here in Scranton, have dreams just as big, just as expansive and just as accomplishable as any place in the world.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

HORSLEY: After the Scranton event, Obama traded his bus for Air Force One, and headed back to Washington, where he'll enjoy the last few days of summer before Congress returns for what could be a very stormy September. Scott Horsley, NPR News, Washington.

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