On student loans, Biden doesn’t have an answer yet
Lawmakers and advocates who have pushed for President Biden to act on student loan forgiveness were left frustrated and disappointed this week when he didn’t answer a reporter’s question on the issue.
Biden was asked during his marathon press conference on Wednesday if he still plans to cancel $10,000 in student loans — which he pledged to do during his campaign — but he didn’t respond.
“We are looking for a clear answer from our president — I for one don’t believe I’ve heard one yet,” said Rep. Cori Bush (D-Mo.), a progressive who has been vocal on fighting the student loan crisis.
Biden has extended the student loan repayment pause until May, giving some relief to borrowers amid record spikes in COVID-19 cases.
But pressure has been building on the president to forgive student debt, especially before the upcoming midterm elections, and broad-based forgiveness has gained support among Democratic leaders including Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (N.Y.).
Roughly 43 million Americans owe a collective amount of more than $1.7 trillion in student loans to the federal government.
“If only students could avoid their debt the way Biden dodges questions about his broken promises,” said Thomas Gokey, an organizer with the Debt Collective.
When asked by The Hill why Biden didn’t answer the question and what the answer would be, a White House official said the president supports Congress providing $10,000 in debt relief and he continues to look into what debt relief actions can be taken administratively.
The official also mentioned the repayment pause issued in December.
“I’m happy to see that the press continues to hammer the president and the press secretary on this issue,” said Cody Hounanian, executive director at Student Debt Crisis Center (SDCC). “What it means to me is that no matter what this administration does, the press and the public in general remember what he promised on the campaign trail.”
The student loan question was asked back-to-back with another unrelated one from a reporter at the end of the nearly two-hour press conference, so it’s possible Biden’s non-answer was unintentional.
“Honestly, I think he dodged it because he could,” said Robert Moran, a former senior policy adviser in the Education Department under President George W. Bush and now a principal at Bose Public Affairs Group. “And loans are such a hot topic right now, and the reporter gave him an out with the second question. He basically didn’t address it because one, he didn’t have to and two, he didn’t want to get into the back and forth of, ‘We don’t have the authority to do it.’ ”
Hounanian noted that the White House has dodged questions on student loans before and called it a continued pattern from the president and press secretary Jen Psaki.
“When I hear the president ignore a question like this, it feels like another one of those deflections,” he said.
The president requested a memo from the Department of Education in April to determine his authority to cancel student debt, but the administration hasn’t given an update on the status of it.
When asked if the Education Department is done with the memo, a spokesperson for the agency said it is working with the White House to “review options with respect to debt cancellation.”
Advocates and many Democrats, however, have made up their minds: Biden does have the power to forgive loans through executive action, and he should do so.
“The student debt crisis is uniquely horrific: It cuts across ideological, racial, and economic lines, affecting every single zip code and community in our country in a way that offers President Biden a rare opportunity to help the entire country with the stroke of his pen,” Bush said. “The President has the authority to cancel student debt, and he should use it.”
Bush noted that borrowers are disproportionately Black and brown, and that Black women carry the most student debt out of any demographic, with an average of more than $37,000, compared to $31,000 for white women.
A May 2021 analysis from the American Association of University Women found that Black women owed roughly 20 percent more student debt than white women.
Rep. Jamaal Bowman, a Democrat from New York, vowed to keep pressing Biden on the issue, noting Biden has continued to extend the loan payment moratorium first enacted under then-President Trump in March 2020.
“President Biden paused student loan payments for the entirety of his first term and that’s because of our movement and pressure. He can keep making history by canceling them too. We’re going to keep working with the president, urging him to fulfill his campaign promise, and making the case. The time is now,” he said.
Advocates argue that too much is on the line for the president to not be transparent on the issue.
“Biden may have dodged a question today, but he won’t be able to ignore 45 million student loan borrowers if he attempts to turn payments back on in May,” Braxton Brewington, press secretary at the Debt Collective, said on Wednesday.
Progressives have called for Biden to forgive $50,000 per borrower in federally held student debt, five times more than what he campaigned on.
Moran argued that if Biden forgave the $10,000 per borrower he promised during the campaign, it could open the door to pressure on him to go higher.
“When does it stop? You did $10K, $10K is arbitrary, $50K is arbitrary. What does the amount matter once you say you have the legal authority to do it? Why not just get rid of all of it?” he asked.
The White House took steps toward forgiving some loans in the first year of the Biden administration, including providing $5.8 billion for permanently disabled borrowers.
Hounanian, at SDCC, was optimistic after the press conference, arguing Biden’s non-answer could mean the White House hasn’t closed the door on more action.
“This dodging of the question might be just another sign that there are internal discussions and they might not been know what their response is on this either. I think our pressure is having an influence,” he said.