The internal frustrations and failure to come up with a student debt plan are feeding the president’s anxieties that Democrats such as Warren will tap into populist impulses that propelled his 2016 victory, and that he will need policies beyond his signature areas of immigration and trade to counter them.
After seeing Warren (D-Mass.) promise to forgive $640 billion in student debt, Trump began asking Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and White House aides what the administration was doing on the issue, and in August he demanded a blueprint.
“We don’t have a plan,” he complained to aides, according to administration officials.
But months have passed after several contentious meetings with no consensus internally about how to attack the problem. Administration officials at the White House and the Education Department are scrambling to produce a plan before Trump departs Dec. 20 for Christmas at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida. On Nov. 21, DeVos huddled at the White House with top administration officials for a senior-level meeting on the issue, officials said.
The internal frustrations and debate were described by a half-dozen administration officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to disclose internal discussions.
Judd Deere, a White House spokesman, said the president “recognizes the serious situation many Americans find themselves in with rising student loan debt and has already taken significant administrative and regulatory action.”
Americans are grappling with the burden of $1.5 trillion in student loan debt. College enrollment soared during the last recession, but students bore more of the cost as states dialed back investment in higher education. Stagnant wages and an influx of students with limited resources made borrowing more of a necessity.
At the same time, the cost of attending college has increased almost eight times faster than wages in the past 30 years.
Beyond forgiving debt, Warren’s plan would make tuition free at all two- and four-year public colleges, for a total cost of $1.25 trillion over a decade. She says she will pay for it with a 2 percent annual tax on Americans with more than $50 million in wealth.
“The time for half-measures is over,” she said in introducing her plan, which she often describes as costing the wealthy just “two cents” of every dollar they have.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), another presidential contender, wants to eliminate all outstanding student debt by taxing Wall Street firms to offset the cost. Other Democratic candidates have rolled out more targeted debt relief proposals. South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg would cancel the debts of students who attended predatory for-profit colleges.
The ideas are popular. A Hill-HarrisX poll in September found 58 percent of registered voters supported plans to eliminate education debt, including 72 percent of Democrats and 40 percent of Republicans.
Two administration officials, describing the internal discussions, said the challenge is coming up with something to rival expansive and expensive plans without proposing massive spending.
Aides said ideas that have been discussed include a risk-sharing plan that would leave colleges on the hook if students default on education loans. They also have considered imposing limits on tuition hikes at schools participating in the federal student loan program. And they have weighed caps on student loans tied to expected future earnings.
Internally, DeVos has touted her agency’s work to boost transparency on college costs and changes to the accreditation system that allow more distance-learning and other alternative programs to qualify for federal student loans.
But senior officials regard ideas presented so far as unworkable or too small and lacking the appeal of Warren’s approach.
One official said it is possible Trump would be willing to propose a big spending plan, but his advisers, including DeVos, have little appetite for a huge expansion of government. To the contrary, DeVos has worked to shrink the footprint of the Education Department.
“He’s trying to figure out what is the big idea for the campaign that I can use with the sizzle to match the sizzle the Democrats are talking about,” one administration official said. But coming up with something is difficult. “You don’t get direction from the president on anything, so you have to go and try to figure it out and see what happens. It’s a very difficult environment to try and make policy.”
Amid these tensions, some in the White House are blaming DeVos, saying it’s her job to produce a proposal — and some are recycling complaints to the president that DeVos has not done enough to advance a vision for the administration.
The education secretary is hugely unpopular among Democrats but has survived to become one of the administration’s longest-serving Cabinet secretaries.
Other administration officials said any blame should be spread around. They said policy experts based at the White House budget office and the Domestic Policy Council have also failed to come up with ideas to satisfy the president and that Trump has offered no guidance.
A DeVos spokeswoman declined to comment.
The anti-DeVos contingent also points to court defeats for various proposals. And in October, a federal judge held the secretary in contempt and fined the department $100,000 for violating a court order to stop collecting federal loan payments from former Corinthian Colleges students.
Some at the White House still blame DeVos for a dust-up this year over a proposal to eliminate $17.6 million in federal funding for the Special Olympics. In March, DeVos spent three days defending the proposal, although her aides said it had been ordered up by the White House. Trump then overruled it.
In any case, Trump has suggested to advisers that DeVos’s position as education secretary is secure because of her influence in her home state of Michigan, which he sees as essential to winning reelection. DeVos and her husband have long been active in GOP Michigan politics.
At the Education Department, DeVos has staked out a conservative approach to policy that questions the federal role in student lending and is far removed from the Democratic plans to boost Washington’s role.
Her agency has made it harder for students who say they were defrauded by colleges to erase their debts. It also has repeatedly proposed cutting loan forgiveness for public sector workers and caps on student lending.
That track record has rankled liberal consumer groups, but it has been lauded among conservatives who want to limit federal spending in higher education.
Still, addressing student debt levels must be a priority for conservatives, said Mary Clare Amselem, an education policy analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank. She said a thoughtful plan should start with preventing more Americans from borrowing money they cannot afford to repay.
“This is something conservatives should be engaging on and not simply defaulting to those on the left who have seemingly attractive proposals,” she said. “We know that high levels of student debt have negative effects on the economy, with people putting off buying homes, putting off starting families.”