Discover more from The Message Box
The Political Case for Canceling Student Debt
Biden is under real pressure to cancel student debt, here's why he hasn't done it yet and why he should.
With everything happening at home and abroad, there is one issue raised during every Message Box Q&A, Pod Save America mailbag, and discussion with activists. Everyone wants to know if President Biden is going to cancel student debt. The failure to do so nearly 18 months into the presidency has become a point of great frustration for a number of Democrats. Progressive members of Congress like AOC and Elizabeth Warren are constantly tweeting “Today is a good day to #cancelstudentdebt.” To say Biden is under pressure is an understatement. There is a lot of mystery, consternation, and even some conspiracy theories about why Biden has yet to take executive action and cancel student debt.
In this conversation, it is assumed that unilaterally canceling student debt would be a huge political winner, and that Biden is refusing to act out of obstinance or endemic centrism. For those who didn’t love the President in the primary, the failure to act on student debt cancellation is proof positive of the validity of their concerns.
I am far from an expert on the issue, but the substantive and moral case for student debt cancellation is very persuasive. However, it is worth digging a little deeper into the issue to see if the political case is as strong as people believe.
Is Biden Breaking his Promise?
It’s fair to say that the President is less gung ho for this policy than some of his fellow 2020 candidates. Advocates bemoan Biden for breaking a campaign promise by not acting to cancel student debt. But it’s more complicated than that. His campaign vaguely promised to cancel up to $10,000 in student debt and it seems to be specifically related to a bill introduced by Elizabeth Warren and others to do just that. If that bill reached his desk tomorrow, Biden would gladly sign it. I also believe that if a bill canceling more than $10,000 showed up on his desk, he would sign that as well. Because there is no path for a legislative remedy, Biden is under pressure to act unilaterally – which is technically a departure from his campaign promise.
The President clearly prefers Congressional action over executive action. That preference is about more than his fondness for the Senate. Legislation is more durable and less vulnerable to a rigged Supreme Court than executive action based on powers that he is widely – but not universally – believed to possess.
It’s also worth noting that the Biden Administration repeatedly extended the pandemic-related pause on student loan interest payments. In fact, no one has paid a penny in interest on their Federal Student Loans since Biden became President. But that’s not all. As CNN reported:
Making a piecemeal approach, the Biden administration has expanded existing loan forgiveness programs for borrowers who work in the public sector, those who were defrauded by for-profit colleges and borrowers who are now permanently disabled. Those moves have delivered significant relief to more than 700,000 borrowers, totaling more than $17 billion.
While the President hasn’t done everything people want him to do, he hasn’t gotten enough credit for some of his moves.
Why Hasn’t He Done it Yet?
Ultimately, it is the job of advocates to advocate and they are well within their rights to push Biden to use every tool available even if it is not his preferred path. But let’s assume (as I do) that the President is open to using his authority to cancel student debt. Why hasn’t he done it yet? I should stipulate I lack inside information on the internal Biden Administration debates over student debt cancelation. But I have a sense of how these issues tend to play out in the White House policy-making process. I see three possible reasons for the delay:
First, the Administration is divided on the legal authority, substantive merits, and political wisdom of canceling student debt. I can imagine a wide-ranging, neverending series of interagency meetings hurling recommendations at the President. I can see the lawyers fearing their executive order will immediately be stayed by some Right Wing judges. Some political advisors might nervously rework the optics of such a loss. Ultimately, these sorts of intractable disagreements only get resolved in the Oval Office and the President is pretty busy these days. I theorize that extending the pause in interest payments until the end of August can give this process time to play itself out and establish a date by when it must conclude.
The second reason is the same one that has upended nearly all of Biden’s plans – Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema. The President needed both of their votes to confirm Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson and wants to make one more run at passing a major bill to deal with climate change and rising inflation. Taking unilateral action on student loan debt would give both of them permission to walk away from the nascent negotiations on such a package. If Biden is going to cancel student debt, he must wait until that process plays itself out.
The final – and perhaps overly optimistic – reason is that the President is simply waiting for the moment of greatest impact. Given our woefully short attention spans, waiting until closer to the election makes a lot of political sense. Acting now would get lost in the barrage of news from abroad and the overly negative narrative from rising inflation and high gas prices.
The Political Case
Young voters delivered the Presidency to Joe Biden through high turnout and huge margins. Recreating that dynamic is necessary for Democrats to maintain their narrow majorities. Currently, high turnout isn’t likely. As Elena Schneider wrote in Politico:
Earlier this year, approval for President Joe Biden among people aged 18-30 hit depths no Democratic president had plumbed in decades: the mid- to low-30s in Gallup and other polls. (Barack Obama never dropped below 42 percent among that group in Gallup’s surveys.) In some cases, the swing against Biden in 2021 totaled anywhere from 20 to 30 percentage points. He has since made gains in some polls but is still on unstable ground.
The question isn’t if Biden needs to do something to improve his standing with young voters. The question is whether student debt cancellation is that thing. A poll from Data for Progress indicates that possibility. 45 percent of young voters in Arizona, Georgia, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania were 45 percent more likely to vote if President Biden canceled $10,000 of student debt.
Canceling student debt is an opportunity to demonstrate political strength and gain some momentum. Getting some of your biggest supporters to applaud you has an exponential effect in the age of social media. Seeing people applaud Biden can start a virtuous cycle. However, it’s important to remember that the overwhelming majority of younger Americans have no student debt.
There is some concern among Democrats about a backlash to debt cancellation from independents and other persuadable voters. But a Morning Consult poll found that 62 percent of Americans support some form of student debt cancellation. More research needs to be done and such an action would have to be messaged carefully, but these are positive signs.
Canceling student debt wouldn’t solve all of the Democrats’ political problems, but it would be a step in the right direction.