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Opinion The political case for forgiving student loan debt

President Biden on the South Lawn of the White House on May 1. (Stefani Reynolds/AFP/Getty Images)
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The policy case for President Biden to forgive college student loan debt is strong, and it’s being made really well by a lot of others. So this column will be about the electoral case. That’s decently strong, too — but with some caveats.

There are three big electoral reasons to forgive student debt: to appeal to younger voters and those with debt, to please the Democratic base, and to give Biden’s presidency momentum.

About 45 million Americans have some college debtabout 17 percent of the adult population. That’s a big number. About 83 percent of Americans who currently have student debt support forgiveness, according to polling from the left-leaning think tank Data for Progress and the Student Borrower Protection Center.

And while most younger people don’t have college debt, those who do are disproportionately under 45, and under 30 in particular. Younger voters are Democratic-leaning, but they tend to vote at high rates in some elections (2018, 2020) and not others (2014), and Democrats suffer when young voters’ participation falls. Biden’s support has dipped among younger voters; loan forgiveness and other targeted policies could boost these voters.

But the group that supports forgiveness the most is not college graduates (62 percent in favor, according to Data for Progress polling) or people under 45 (72 percent). It’s Democratic voters, 83 percent of whom are in favor. One of the successes of the debt-relief movement has been taking what had been a left-wing stance and turning it into one embraced by establishment Democrats including Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.) and House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn (S.C.) and the party more broadly. Firing up the base is particularly important in a midterm election cycle, when turnout tends to be lower. And the base really likes debt forgiveness.

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While most Democrats are in favor of debt relief, the party’s left wing has galvanized around this issue, with 93 percent of “very liberal” Americans in favor. Though they’re hard to quantify precisely, those in the party’s left wing make up about 10 to 15 percent of the overall electorate and from a quarter to a third of Democrats. That’s comparable to Black voters (12 percent of the electorate; a fifth of Democrats). The Democrats shouldn’t go overboard in appeasing progressives, just as they have to calibrate their appeals to Black voters, but they need every progressive vote they can get. So it’s worth thinking about debt forgiveness as akin to Biden’s pledge to pick a Black woman for the Supreme Court. The president is facing the demand of an essential part of his coalition, and meeting that demand will help energize that part of his coalition.

Letters to the Editor

counterpointDo we just keep forgiving student loans?

But loan forgiveness could have electoral benefits beyond that, too. In my view, Biden’s approval ratings have fallen in part, because his administration just seems stuck. Forgiveness could help change that narrative. Americans going on social media and praising Biden for saving them thousands of dollars could help him, even among people without any college debt, since many of them have friends or relatives with debt.

Still, it would be dangerous for Democrats, who already win overall among college graduates but lose those without degrees, to further inflame that diploma divide. After all, only a third of American adults have at least a bachelor’s degree. But polling suggests that debt relief doesn’t divide people by education. Only about 30 percent of those without a degree oppose forgiveness, the same as the share of people with degrees, according to polling from the left-leaning YouGov Blue.

Perhaps those numbers will change if debt relief is framed by the media or Republicans as a sop to the college-educated. But for now, polls show that a plurality and, in some surveys, a clear majority of Americans support debt relief and that the minority in opposition is largely conservatives and Republicans, who are going to vote against the Democrats anyway.

The problem for Biden is that many center-left Democratic politicians and prominent center-left or centrist media figures and institutions — including this paper’s editorial board — are opposed, too. A similar coalition of Republicans, center-left Democrats and influential media voices was skeptical of Biden’s decision to pull all U.S. troops from Afghanistan last summer, so when that went poorly, Biden faced intense, bipartisan criticism that was in turn heavily amplified by the media. That coverage drove Biden’s poll numbers down. If I were Biden, I would worry about those opponents amplifying stories of loans forgiven for “undeserving” people (say, Harvard graduates or corporate lawyers) and poisoning the program in the eyes of the public.

What if Biden announces a loan-forgiveness program but the federal courts rule it illegal? It wouldn’t be the worst outcome in the world, but it could still hurt. I think most Democrats would be satisfied that Biden tried. But a loan-forgiveness program being announced and shot down would add to the perception that Biden is ineffective.

Biden should forgive student loans because it would help millions of people — not because it will ensure Democrats win the midterms, because it probably won’t do that. But there are real reasons to think that debt forgiveness is that rare thing in Washington: good politics and good policy at once.

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