As many as 43 million Americans could have their federal student-loan debt either reduced or forgiven entirely under a plan U.S. President Joe Biden announced last month. Following through on a 2020 campaign pledge, Biden is moving to cancel up to US$10,000 in debt for individuals earning less than $125,000 a year and couples earning less than $250,000. He says the policy will help “families who need it most—working and middle-class people hit especially hard during the pandemic,” and borrowers who received federal Pell Grants, typically given to low-income undergraduate students, will be eligible for an additional $10,000. Yet Biden’s plan, generally lauded by progressives, drew criticism from moderates in his party, including candidates running in swing states in this fall’s midterm elections. Ohio’s Democratic U.S. Senate nominee Tim Ryan said, “Waiving debt for those already on a trajectory to financial security sends the wrong message to millions of Ohioans without a degree working just as hard to make ends meet.” Meanwhile, Republicans and right-wing groups are not only opposed but going so far as to look for ways to challenge the policy’s legality. What does the Biden administration’s decision to move forward with the policy, despite these widespread reservations, indicate about the administration’s political priorities?
Ben Ritz directs the Center for Funding America’s Future at the Progressive Policy Institute, a center-left think tank based in Washington. In the months and weeks leading up to the announcement of broad student-loan forgiveness, Ritz urged the Biden administration against it. While it would give immediate benefits to some college-educated voters, notably a key Democratic Party constituency, it wouldn’t do anything, Ritz says, to address the underlying drivers of rising tuition costs. Meanwhile, it would risk further alienating the non–college-educated voters Democrats are struggling to attract. As Ritz sees it, the political rationale for the administration’s move is to mobilize young, student–debt-burdened Americans to vote in a midterm-election year that’s going to be challenging for the Democrats—which, to Ritz, is emblematic of the party’s struggle to extend its appeal beyond its existing electoral base. It also, he thinks, illustrates something important and less obvious about the administration’s approach to coalition politics: Where previous Democratic presidents, including Barack Obama and Bill Clinton, made tough choices about what to prioritize and who to disappoint—for the sake of building broader coalitions beyond their party—Biden’s tendency has been to try to give something to every significant constituency within his party. Two years into his term, it’s a question how sustainable this political pattern will be.
Graham Vyse: How does student-loan forgiveness relate to the Biden administration’s broader policy agenda?
Ben Ritz: Something this administration has been consistent about is its desire to give something to every part of the Democratic Party’s coalition. Where Barack Obama and other previous presidents set priorities—seeing themselves as having a limited amount of political capital and fiscal space to work with, or as needing to balance tradeoffs—the Biden administration has seemed to want to give everybody in their coalition what they were looking for. There’ve been voices on the left and in the center saying it would be better politics to do a few things well, as opposed to a bunch of things half-baked, yet the administration has persisted in its tendency.
Much of the agenda that it has framed as being about “cutting costs” for American families is really more about “covering costs.” Student-debt cancellation fits perfectly with this pattern. Rather than tackling the underlying drivers of skyrocketing tuition, Biden’s plan is simply to have taxpayers pay off the debts people take out to cover college. It’s very troubling, not least for progressives because this “covering costs” approach bloats the government in a way that’s corrosive to their agenda. The best way to show that the government can be trusted to do more is by doing a better job of what the government already does. That hasn’t been a priority under this administration—at least not as much of a priority as it was for Barack Obama’s or Bill Clinton’s.
Vyse: So, what was the political calculation here?