WASHINGTON, April 29 (UPI) -- President Barack Obama surprised a group of college journalists visiting the White House on Thursday, fielding questions on topics ranging from student debt to the Syrian refugee crisis and lamenting about being "picked on" by the news media.
Obama popped into the White House Briefing Room as his press secretary, Josh Earnest, was chatting with the students about life in Washington.
"I hear there's some hotshot journalists here. Josh was speaking for me, and I wanted to make sure he was getting it right," Obama said as he took the podium.
Obama opened his talk by announcing the administration's aim to enroll some 2 million student loan borrowers in the Pay As You Earn repayment program by mid 2017. He also vented about the "pokes and prods" from the press, but said it is necessary to keep a free press.
"Sometimes both Josh and I probably have our disagreements with the press corps, and feel picked on or misunderstood, but the truth of the matter is -- and I've said this before -- what separates us out in part from a lot of other countries in the world is we've got this incredible free press that pokes and prods and calls into account our leaders," he said.
Student questions ranged from, "Do you have plans to encourage more Syrian refugees to the United States?" (yes), "Can I take a picture with you?" (no) and "Can I have a one-on-one interview with you?" (maybe).
"It is the right thing to do," he said encouraging more Syrian migrants to the United States. "Our closest friends and allies, like Canada, like Germany and other European countries, as well as countries bordering Syria like Turkey and Jordan, have taken on an enormous burden. And as the most powerful nation on Earth, it's important for us to do our duty as well here, our humanitarian obligation."
Obama spun off a question about U.S. cynicism to implore the young journalist to look for "good stories" to break through doubt and mistrust. He said there are 2 million federal employees who do good things every day.
"If, out of those 2 million employees, one person screws up somewhere -- which every day you can count on somebody out of 2 million people probably doing something they shouldn't be doing -- that's what's going to get reported on," he said. "Now, that helps keeps government on its toes and accountable. But one of the things we have to think about is how do we tell a story about the things we do together that actually work so that people don't feel so cynical overall."
As he left the briefing, Obama made a final plea to the young journalists:
"I'm counting on you guys," he said. "Don't let me down, all right? Don't let the country down. You guys are going to be delivering the message to your peer group that this is the greatest country on Earth, but only because we have great citizens who are willing to invest their time and energy and effort to become informed on the issues, to argue about it in a respectful way, and to try to collectively solve the many challenges that we face."