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The independent: Survey shows opportunity for Biden’s 2024 campaign on student debt relief

March 26, 2024

JOHN BOWDEN

A new survey shows wide support, particularly on the left but among younger Americans broadly across the spectrum, for student debt relief.

The questions for Joe Biden are: Can he sell them on what his administration has already done? And can he convince those voters that more is on the table?

The survey data released Tuesday by Protect Borrowers Action highlighted several dynamics underpinning the student debt debate, which has largely taken a back seat to issues like immigration and Ukraine in recent months as Congress has battled over spending bills.

First, the facts: The Biden administration sought to wipe clean more than $400bn in student loan debt, but last year the Supreme Court halted that plan and struck down the Department of Education’s debt forgiveness measure. Had the plan survived the Supreme Court’s scrutiny, Mr Biden’s administration would have been responsible for cancelling a little under a third of all federally-held student debt in America.

But undeterred, the Department of Education has sought other means to cancel parts of the $1.6 trillion total federal student debt in America. Through the end of last year and into 2024, the Biden administration has still managed to cancel a little over $143bn of that debt; more action is purportedly on the drawing board as the November election approaches. One recent action came in January when another nearly $5bn was added to that total.

Last week, the president upped the total again. A White House announcement declared that $6bn in loans for public service workers would be forgiven, shoring up an existing program that allows Americans who complete years of work in specific professions including the medical field to see some of their debt burdens cleared.

What that means for the president’s re-election chances, according to the survey, is still unclear. The biggest hurdle for Democrats is simple: A wider segment of Americans have an incorrect idea — if they have an idea at all — of the scope of the Biden administration’s existing student loan forgiveness programs. Less than 10 per cent of survey respondents could get within the ballpark of the correct total when asked.

The other dynamic outlined by the survey was more straightforward: A massive age gap on the issue which transcends typical political boundaries. More than four in ten Republicans described as Gen Z or millennials believe that at least some student debt cancellation is needed for those most burdened by it; nearly a quarter support debt relief for all Americans. Among younger Democrats that number surges much higher. A drop-off occurs among members of the Baby Boomer and Silent generations in both parties.

That’s an important factor for the Biden campaign to consider for one reason: Younger conservative Americans are far more reachable, politically speaking, than older Republicans. At a minimum, the issue provides the president an opportunity to water down support for his opponent, Donald Trump, among a key demographic — provided that Mr Biden can actually convince Americans of the reality that his administration is working past the Court’s ban.

“The argument has to be about what is doable right now. You create trust, and connection with voters, when you address real needs,” the American Federation of Teachers’s Randi Weingarten told The Independent in an interview Tuesday.

She urged the administration to focus on the stories of real Americans affected by debt relief; teachers, firefighters, and others who would see serious life-changing debt relief from these programs to counter the narrative pushed by Fox News and conservatives surrounding the image of a “handout”.

“I think that the only story that is compelling is how [debt] forgiveness is game-changing and life-changing for regular Americans,” she said. Ms Weingarten recounted one woman in her 60s who had shown up to an AFT debt forgiveness event “in tears” because the plan had wiped away debt she had spent decades fighting to clear.

“She's now becoming a nurse,” said Ms Weingarten. “I just think we have to tell these stories. I think it's the stories that actually then show the connection to the promise of America, to the opportunity of America.”

Mr Biden devoted a few seconds to the topic during his State of the Union address earlier in March, telling Americans: “When I was told I couldn’t universally just change the way in which we dealt with student loans, I fixed two student loan programs that already existed to reduce the burden of student debt for nearly 4 million Americans, including nurses, firefighters and others in public service.”

When it comes to campaigning on the issue, though, the Biden campaign has only brushed the surface. While the president and Kamala Harris look poised to campaign on issues like battling inflation, protecting abortion access and averting a recession, the pair have yet to focus any significant time or money selling the idea that student debt forgiveness is — or was, given that some has already occurred — a form of economic stimulus. In January, the president mentioned it at an event in South Carolina, but his supporters argue that the data shows much more can be done.

One of those supporters is John Della Volpe, the Biden-Harris campaign’s 2020 pollster. He headlined Tuesday’s event held by the AFT to announce the results of their polling and said that there was clear room for improvement in terms of getting voters to recognise the work of the Biden Department of Education.

“Student debt relief is not just a young person’s issue,” he said. “This survey shows that most voters, regardless of age, believe that taking a loan to pay for education should not result in a lifetime of debt, and they also know that cancelling student debt just doesn’t help the individual or the family, but strengthens the economy for everyone.”

 

MEDIA Inquiries: PRESS@borrowersaction.org

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