The politics of student debt forgiveness

Progressives have been pressuring President Biden to forgive student debt using existing administrative authority.  Calls have gotten louder as Democrats become more concerned about their weak position going into the November mid-terms.  Supporters of debt relief point to polls showing support for relief, especially among younger voters that the Democrats need to mobilize. 

There are a lot of problems with this analysis.

Debt relief does seem to poll well for certain needy or deserving groups:  those who go into public service, those who are disabled or unable to pay, those in bankruptcy, etc.  I doubt that broad-based relief would be popular, especially once Republicans go on the attack.  Most college grads do just fine, thank you very much.  Showering them with tens of thousands of dollars is a strange strategy for a party anxious to increase its standing with working class voters.

The problem is that advocates have created the expectation that debt will be canceled in an across-the-board fashion.  Democratic politicians have generally pandered to this sentiment rather than pushing back and offering more sensible and targeted proposals.  Although progressives claim that voters will stay home due to unfulfilled promises by Democrats, this is a case of progressive advocates creating unrealistic expectations that will lead to demoralization.

President Biden seems to understand that broad-based debt forgiveness would be a political liability.  But even a targeted approach to debt relief through executive action seems like an incredible kludge.  We need some combination of income-based repayment, bankruptcy forgiveness, administrative reforms, need based grants, cracking down on for-profit schools that prey on vulnerable young people, etc.  Fixing the real problems with our college financing system will almost surely require legislation.

Even if some kind of kludgy work-around can be created using existing statutory authority, there is a real chance that any major debt-relief initiative will be challenged in court.  Even if the Democrats end up winning, the chaos will end up hurting them politically.  I can’t say this often enough:  people hate gridlock and bickering, and they will hold Biden and the Democrats responsible because they believe the president can do anything if he sets his mind to it and because the Democrats control Congress.  This is why McConnell’s strategy of obstruction works:  most voters do not know enough about politics to understand that Republicans are the cause of conflict and stalemate.

So what to do?  I think implementing targeted relief administratively is fine, assuming the authority exists under current law.  But Biden should propose legislation that explicitly addresses the main problems with the student debt system.  Assistance should be targeted to low-income students, and to people who for one reason or another have trouble supporting themselves and repaying their loans:  going to college should not put people at risk for decades of unaffordable debt payments and harassment by creditors.  Biden should emphasize that his proposal is narrowly targeted, fiscally responsible, and upholds the core American values of opportunity, individual responsibility, and hard work.  He should ask for Republican support and bipartisan cooperation.

Of course it is unlikely that such a push for bipartisanship will work, but administrative action is very likely to fail as well, both politically and in the courts.  The advantage of seeking bipartisan legislation is that if it fails it will help voters understand where the real problem is.  And Biden can always reluctantly resort to administrative action if Republicans refuse to work with him.