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Biden plunges into the risky politics of student loan debt

Conservatives say canceling student debt is a gift to irresponsible elites. Liberals say it’s a lifeline for young people struggling to get ahead.

Demonstrators gather near the White House to urge President Biden to cancel student debt. (Paul Morigi/Getty Images)

The news had just emerged that President Biden was moving toward canceling at least some student loan debt, and Donald Trump Jr., in the final days of campaigning for U.S. Senate candidate J.D. Vance in Ohio last month, did not mince words as he excoriated the idea at rallies.

“Biden essentially wants blue-collar workers like truck drivers — who didn’t have the luxury of going to college to get drunk for four years — to bail out a bunch of upper-middle-class kids who chose to spend tens of thousands of dollars that they didn’t have on worthless gender study degrees,” Trump told The Washington Post later, elaborating on his message to voters.

Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), a more moderate Republican, jumped in as well, suggesting the move was little more than a political payout to win votes. “Other bribe suggestions: Forgive auto loans? Forgive credit card debt? Forgive mortgages?” he wrote on social media.

With Biden now moving closer to an executive order canceling some portion of student debt, Republicans are seizing on the issue to burnish their favored portrait of the two parties: Democrats, they say, champion the privileged elites, while Republicans support America’s down-to-earth workers. It’s a message that reflects the turbulent, risky politics of student debt for Biden, who has expressed both support and skepticism about student loan forgiveness.

Liberals respond that a sweeping loan cancellation program would provide critical help for struggling Latino, Black and young people amid a tough economy. Still, even some Democrats are wary of a critique that their party is aiming to help people who chose to take on debt at the expense of those who didn’t.

The issue of high college tuition costs emerged as a major plank in Sen. Bernie Sanders’s 2016 presidential campaign, when the progressive leader urged supporters at his campaign events to call out how much debt they were carrying. In the 2020 campaign, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) pushed slashing student debt, and even Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) has now taken to prodding Biden on the issue.

But Biden has not been quick to embrace it as president, at times also raising fairness issues. At a CNN town hall early in his presidency, he referred to the “billions of dollars in debt for people who have gone to Harvard and Yale and Penn” and asked rhetorically, “Is that going to be forgiven, rather than use that money to provide for early education for young children who come from disadvantaged circumstances?”

Biden at odds with some Democrats over student loans

More recently, Biden has signaled that any debt forgiveness plan would include sharp limits, for example erasing no more than $10,000 in debt for any individual and benefiting only those who make less than $125,000 a year.

The conservative-liberal divide on the issue is more than a policy dispute; it reflects contrasting world views, at a time when those with a college degree are more likely to be Democrats and those without such degrees lean Republican. Some conservatives increasingly portray college as leftist, elitist and useless; liberals, on the other hand, describe it as a vital, if overpriced, path of advancement for the underprivileged.

When The Post reported late last month that Biden had suggested to a group of Latino lawmakers that he was now open to canceling student debt, the Ohio Republican primary for the Senate was in its final days, and the candidates seized on the issue to flaunt their anti-establishment credentials.

One GOP hopeful, former Ohio Republican Party chair Jane Timken, said at a campaign event that forgiving college debt was part of an “extreme left” agenda, adding: “How is that fair to the kids who never went to college, who are working as welders and plumbers? They should have to pay for those kids who can’t get a job or won’t get a job?”

Vance, who ultimately won the nomination, tweeted that loan forgiveness is “a massive windfall to the rich, to the college educated, and most of all to the corrupt university administrators of America.”

In an interview, Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), the second-ranking Senate Republican, predicted that Biden would court a backlash if he follows through on loan forgiveness.

“I think you’d have a revolt,” Thune said. He professed himself baffled by the political calculation, saying, “I understand they’re maybe trying to help a certain constituency, but I think the constituency that is going to have major heartburn over this is significantly larger, and is going to meet that kind of announcement with a lot of hostility.”

Some Democrats stressed that any loan cancellation program would have to be carefully crafted. “I’d be open to some of it,” said Cheri Beasley, a Democrat running for Senate in North Carolina. “But I think it’s really important to be thoughtful about the impact on our economy.”

Others said that because it would probably take the Education Department several months to implement such a policy, the political benefits could be limited.

Progressives contend that the idea has far broader support than opponents admit. In January, an Economist/YouGov poll found that 49 percent of Americans supported forgiving student loan debt from public schools, while 35 percent were opposed. As for adults under 30, a Harvard Kennedy School poll in April found that 85 percent supported some form of government action on student debt, though only 38 percent favored total cancellation.

All told, 45 million Americans held $1.6 trillion in federal student loans as of December, the latest available data from the Education Department. Canceling $10,000 would wipe clear the balances of roughly a third of borrowers, while leaving another 20 percent of people with less than half of what they owe.

And Democrats believe they’ll be rewarded for wiping out at least some of that debt.

"We desperately need to motivate young people to vote to have a chance to win this election,” said Mike Lux, a Democratic political strategist who is in contact with the White House. “They are the people who are most likely to be burdened by student debt, the people most likely to see those bills coming. I think they would be far more motivated to vote if they saw something tangible to help them.”

Such thinking may be playing into Biden’s calculus. A few hours before he told Hispanic lawmakers that he was ready to move on student debt, a half-dozen of Biden’s top advisers gathered in the Roosevelt Room at the White House to hear from two Harvard students who had studied the political views of young Americans.

Among the attention-grabbing findings of Alan Zhang and Jing-Jing Shen, the chair and former chair of the Harvard Public Opinion Project: Even among those who had not attended college, 57 percent favored debt cancellation.

That seemed to resonate with those listening, including White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain, presidential counselor Steve Ricchetti, senior adviser Cedric L. Richmond and Deputy Chief of Staff Jen O’Malley Dillon. Afterward, the two students were called into the Oval Office by the president, where they chatted for about a half-hour about problems facing the country and their personal aspirations.

Progressive leaders hope to motivate voters like Philip Beechler, a 32-year-old Democrat in Atlanta, who noted that Biden promised during his campaign to forgive at least some student debt. “I know every campaign promise is not going to come to fruition,” said Beechler, a data analyst. “But why have people waiting for nothing?”

If Biden does not follow through, he added, “I’m not going to go vote Republican. But maybe I won’t vote for the first time in 13 years.”

Beechler, who said he’s carrying nearly $80,000 in federal student loans, disputed the Republican characterization of borrowers as spoiled and entitled. He received no family support when pursuing his bachelor’s degree in political science, he said, so he worked two minimum-wage jobs. He started at the College of Charleston in South Carolina and completed his bachelor’s at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, and said his loan balance is so high in part because he frequently placed his loans in forbearance when he was struggling.

Ultimately, it took him seven years to complete his degree, and even then it has not been easy to gain his financial footing and repay his loans. “I’m not lazy, not terrible with money and I work really hard,” Beechler said. “I just want the same things that other generations had — financial security.”

To many liberals, the problem is not selfish students, but an American higher education system that is prohibitively expensive, with the poor and minorities facing especially high hurdles and the most prestigious colleges often out of reach for middle-class students.

Among the fastest-growing categories of student loan borrowers over the past two decades are Black students and people ages 50 and older, according to the most recent Federal Reserve data. The median income of households with student loans is $76,400, and 7 percent of borrowers are below the poverty line.

Rep. Mondaire Jones (D-N.Y.) said he had “a lively debate” with Biden on debt forgiveness several weeks ago during a presidential meeting with progressive lawmakers. “I noted that it wasn’t just an issue of racial justice and gender justice, but also LGBTQ+ justice,” Jones said. “And I found him to be very sympathetic.”

Jones argued that while college costs have soared in recent years, wage stagnation means that even graduates of top institutions are often making less than many think. And like other liberals, he objected to the idea of limiting loan forgiveness to people below a certain income level, saying government initiatives aimed at specific groups often become less popular.

“That approach of means-testing — of pitting Americans against one another — has proven to be ineffective at building popular support for the transformative social programs in this country,” Jones said. “The reason Social Security and Medicare have such broad support is because they are not means-tested, they are universal.”

The most conservative Democrat in the Senate, Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, who represents a state with many Trump voters who are not college educated, urged Biden to be cautious in offering any broad loan forgiveness program.

“I hope the president and all of his advisers look at that very carefully before they do it,” Manchin said. “I think we all want to do something, and we should do something. We can do something, but more in a responsible way.”

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