Seriously, the optics of the Biden administration prepping borrowers to re-up their payments as the holidays approached and omicron surged were truly a profile in political malpractice. The West Wing apparently clued in to that reality just in time to announce some relief on the week of Christmas.
But White House’s official position continues to be that the administration is working to help borrowers “transition smoothly back into repayment” in order to “advance economic stability for their own households and for our nation.”
Frankly, the nation seems to be doing just fine after a nearly two-year moratorium on payments that, for many, are the difference between securing their foothold in the middle class or living indefinitely in debt-induced poverty.
As columnist Katrina vanden Heuvel writes in Tuesday’s Washington Post: “Why restart payments at all?”
Biden should act now. Not just because the country desperately needs relief—and Biden just as desperately needs a political win—but because canceling student debt is as strategically smart as it is morally urgent.
Today, nearly 1 out of every 6 American adults—43 million people—have outstanding federal student loans, adding up to $1.73 trillion in debt. As Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), a longtime advocate for canceling this debt, explains: “I spent my career studying why so many hard-working middle-class families were going broke. I discovered that they weren’t reckless or irresponsible—they were being squeezed by an economy that forced them to take on more debt to cling to their place in America’s middle class.” Student debt is Exhibit A.
Vanden Heuvel is spot on: Canceling debt is both strategically smart and morally urgent.
But let’s focus for the moment on the political realities facing President Biden, Democrats, and any citizen who still believes in our constitutional democracy heading into next year. The fact is, the president and Democrats must devote every political choice they make in 2022 to the project of preserving the republic. That means they need to shore up every possible voting bloc they can well ahead of next November.
Young voters turned out in historic numbers in 2020 to elect Biden president, with Biden winning some 60% of the vote among voters aged 18 to 29, according to the Democratic data analytics firm Catalist. Young voters of color in particular were also critical to Biden’s victories in key battleground states such as Georgia and Arizona, according to an analysis by the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) at Tuft’s University.
Whatever one thinks of Biden’s accomplishments to date, the lives, outlooks, and futures of that young generation of voters haven’t improved much—if at all—since he’s been in office. They turned out by the millions to march in the streets for justice following the murder of George Floyd, and all they have to show for it now is the promise of some roads and bridges as Republicans systematically attack voting rights across the country.
Since Day 1 of Biden’s presidency, voting rights along with his entire agenda have been under a veto threat by two Democratic Senators, and no one can say with certainty whether they will come around on critical voting rights legislation next year.
So it’s time for President Biden and his political brain trust to leverage every single fricking tool in their toolbox in order to reengage the voters that brought him. In fact, right now, Biden’s job approvals are down some 14 points among Democrats since last spring.
One thing Biden can do unilaterally to materially improve the lives of those young voters who came out in 2020 and placed their faith in him is to unburden them of at least $50,000 in student debt. He doesn’t need the votes of Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia or Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona to take this action. And importantly, finding ways to reach his base of voters that don’t involve those two wrecking balls will be more crucial than ever in 2022.
Whether we personally like the idea of canceling student debt, if we want our democracy to stand a chance, we must start thinking in cold political realities. In fact, when Barack Obama was mounting his reelection bid in 2012, that’s exactly what he did—he went back to his key base constituencies and came out for same-sex marriage (a stunner at the time), created the DACA program for Dreamers, and killed the Keystone XL pipeline to woo climate change activists. They were all unilateral actions that he could take without the blessing of Congress, and they all proved to be smart politics that had the benefit of also being morally urgent.
Canceling student debt is very popular among young voters, and even more so among voters of color. A Civiqs survey earlier this year found that 58% of voters age 18 to 34 support the Biden administration canceling $50,000 in federal student loan debt, including 83% of young Black voters and 69% of young Latino voters—demographics that both carry the greatest debt burden and are most impacted by it.
Look, if President Biden wants to save our democracy, he should be pulling every lever at his disposal and we should be encouraging him to do so. This is a political gimme. It will immediately reengage a disaffected group of voters, and anyone who doesn’t turn out for Biden because of it was never going to vote for him anyway.
These are simply the political realities of our time.