President Biden’s student loan forgiveness announcement is throwing a curveball into the final months of campaigning for vulnerable Democrats.
Biden announced on Wednesday that borrowers earning less than $125,000 per year could see up to $10,000 of their federal student loans forgiven, with Pell Grant recipients seeing $20,000 canceled.
The move was widely praised, but it could also present a predicament for some Democrats in swing districts: It’s less money than many on the left had hoped for, but the announcement may also force them to answer questions about how it could impact inflation.
“This student loan scenario will not make everybody happy,” said Democratic strategist Antjuan Seawright. “There’s no way to make everyone totally happy on this, but I think this president is taking a step in the right direction in terms of doing something.”
Forgiving student loan debt was a common theme on the 2020 campaign trail, and progressives have been clamoring for Biden to take action since he took office.
But the issue is also divisive. Thirty-four percent of respondents in a new CNBC poll said only those in need should have debt forgiven, while 32 percent say all of those with student loan debt should have it forgiven. Thirty percent say no debt should be forgiven.
Republicans have already used the issue to hit moderate Democrats, seeking to tie them to their progressive colleagues in districts with decidedly centrist tilts.
Following Biden’s announcement on Wednesday, Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel referred to the move as “Biden’s bailout for the wealthy.”
“As hardworking Americans struggle with soaring costs and a recession, Biden is giving a handout to the rich,” McDaniel said in a statement.
On Tuesday, as reports of the upcoming announcement began to emerge, the National Republican Congressional Campaign Committee (NRCC) sought to tie Democratic Virginia Reps. Abigail Spanberger, Elaine Luria and Jennifer Wexton to the administration’s move.
“Will Elaine Luria, Abigail Spanberger and Jennifer Wexton condemn this irresponsible plan that will make inflation even worse?” an NRCC press release asked.
Spanberger and Luria are facing particularly contentious reelection bids, with the Cook Political Report rating their races as “toss-ups.”
When asked about Biden’s announcement in an interview with The Hill on Tuesday, Spanberger said she still needed to dig into the details of the proposal, pivoting to discussing higher education costs more broadly.
“One of the things I think we need to be talking about is the overall expense related to higher education,” Spanberger said. “While there’s many opinions about loan forgiveness, how much it should be, how much it shouldn’t be, minimums, maximums, all of the rest, the bottom line is that we continue to see education prices go up year by year at really exorbitant rates.”
“What I want to make sure is never absent from this conversation is are we actually getting at the heart of the problem, which is Americans are graduating or in some cases not graduating with exorbitant amounts of debt and not coming anywhere close to earnings that all them to pay that off,” she added
Lanae Erickson, senior vice president for social policy, education, and politics at the center left think tank Third Way, echoed Spanberger’s message about the cost of higher education in the U.S. and urged other Democratic candidates to adopt a similar message.
“The Biden administration is taking this action, it’s not being voted on by the front-liners who have to win in these districts,” she said. “But they can talk about the fact that this has to be the beginning, not the end, and that we need to reform our higher education system so we’re not back here again in five years because this cannot be an every five years problem.”
Still, he warned Republican attacks against loan forgiveness attacks could have traction with less affluent voters who have moved away from the party in recent years.
“Obviously for folks who have never gone to college, which is a group that Democrats have been eroding supporting among, this does send a message that Democrats are more concerned about issues that affect more elite voters than themselves,” Erickson said.
Supporters of Biden’s move concede that it will not be universally praised, but also call it progress.
“This shows that the Biden administration is pursuing common sense debt relief,” said Jon Reinish, a Democratic strategist. “And good for them, they are not caving to far left, wacky socialists on the fringe of the party who want to do another big spending, write a blank check giveaway.”
Democrats have praised how Biden’s approach is targeted at specific income brackets, rather than a blanketed approach. Additionally, they point to how the action helps groups like women and people of color in particular. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, Black college graduates owe $25,000 on average more than white college graduates.
“This president and this administration has been very effective and efficient on doing everything they can in particular for African American students and [Historically Black Colleges and Universities] and others,” Seawright said.
Ultimately, strategists said, the move may not move the needle with the sort of independent voters vulnerable Democrats need to win over, but it will help galvanize their base.
“I don’t think that a modest $10,000 debt program to people making under $125,000 a year changes one swing voters or makes a right-leaning voter head with more gusto to the polls,” Reinish said.
“What it does do is it could give Democrats more energy because this is something the White House campaigned on,” he continued. “Congressional Democrats and the White House can say here’s yet another thing we’ve delivered on this summer. That’s not a bad thing. That’s good.”