Here’s the good news: President Joe Biden is slowly, maybe, possibly coming to a decision about what to do about the student loan time bomb that’s been ticking since he took office. But the latest cryptic hints from Biden just underscore how America’s roughly 43 million federal student loan debt holders have been kept in the dark over the last year and a half.
Earlier this month, the administration extended the pause on student loan repayments and interest through August, and it’s been more than two years since many recipients have paid down any of the $1.59 trillion in such loans that the federal government has disbursed. But since the freeze began in March 2020, each time we’ve run up against the date to turn the system back on, we’ve gotten another “temporary” pause.
The latest cryptic hints from Biden just underscore how America’s roughly 43 million federal student loan debt holders have been kept in the dark over the last year and a half.
The confusion of debt holders about what’s going to happen — how much we will have to pay back and when — has become a potential political liability for the Democrats. More importantly, it's caused an untenable state of limbo: Should we be paying down our debts now, when the interest rate is still frozen and our payments can go directly to the remaining balance? Or do we wait until the moratorium is over, holding on to the cash the pause has freed up even as prices rise thanks to inflation?
Members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus spoke of the need for firm decisions when they met with President Joe Biden on Tuesday for a wide-ranging policy discussion. In that conversation, Biden “expressed openness to forgiving some student loan debt,” NBC News reported. When Rep. Tony Cardenas, D-Calif., suggested extending the moratorium again after August, according to The Washington Post, Biden “responded with a smile, ‘Well, Tony, I’ve extended it every time.’”
Cardenas then suggested Biden issue an executive order clearing debt holders of at least $10,000 in student loans. Cardenas told CBS News that Biden then "smiled and said, 'You're going to like what I do on that, I'm looking to do something on that and I think you're going to like what I do.'"
Young voters urge Biden to cancel more student debt ahead of midtermsApril 24, 202206:12
For those keeping score, that’s at least two Biden smiles and zero commitments about what’s going to happen. It’s a good thing Biden is, per Cardenas, “looking to do something,” especially given his previous hesitancy. During the 2020 presidential campaign, he’d only backed signing legislation from Congress that would wipe out that amount of debt. He’d also shrugged off suggestions that, on his own, he has the authority to cancel up to $50,000 worth of debt.
Last year, the White House said it had ordered the departments of Justice and Education to review whether Biden has the power to delete federal student loan debt. We haven’t heard how that review has gone, even though Democrats in Congress have pushed Biden to act. (The fact that Congress won't do the right thing and change the law to explicitly give the president this power is a whole other issue.)
Every day the White House delays is giving the GOP more space to argue against student loan forgiveness.
The White House may be planning to wait closer to August to announce a debt cancellation to better give Democrats a needed boost heading into the midterms. But for now, there’s a clear information gap as the administration figures out its game plan, which can only feed into the perception among 18- to 34-year-olds, especially, that the Biden presidency hasn’t benefited them.
Meanwhile, a new poll from the Harvard Kennedy School Institute of Politics found that the vast majority of 18- to 29-year-olds surveyed — 85 percent — wanted at least some government help with student loans. A majority of those wanted student loans canceled for at least some people, with 38 percent in favor of canceling all federal student loan debt.
But every day the White House delays gives the GOP more space to argue against student loan forgiveness. Senate Republicans have introduced a (likely doomed) bill that would block Biden from acting. One of the bill's sponsors, Mike Braun of Idaho, told NBC News that canceling student debt would "add to the national debt" and claimed without proof that it would benefit families who can afford to pay down the loans.
It's an argument that is likely to appeal to two groups: those who never attended college and those who’ve already finished paying off their loans and thus believe their own suffering means all future generations should have to follow suit. That's why, even with the many gaps in his logic, a tweet Wednesday from J.D. Vance, who's running for a Senate seat in Ohio — calling debt cancellation “a massive windfall to the rich, to the college educated, and most of all to the corrupt university administrators of America” — is likely to have a receptive audience.
A more refined version of that argument from Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., which says canceling student debt would force truckers to pay the bills of attorneys, will likewise resonate among voters without college educations, a group that heavily prefers Republicans in most polls. (And besides, when has the GOP turned down a chance to frame a policy that would most benefit Black and Latino Americans as a waste of government money?)
The wink from Biden to the Hispanic Caucus is good in that it hasn’t gotten ahead of any official announcement or rollout. But the time for that kind of strategic ambiguity is nearing the end of its usefulness. If the administration is going to act on this, it needs to do so before the GOP manages to turn the tide of popular opinion through fear — again.