When he was on the campaign trail for president, Joe Biden acknowledged that Americans’ student loan debt is a crisis that urgently needs to be addressed. He wasn’t willing to go as far as some of his opponents were, but he agreed at the time that the next president should forgive some amount of debt. By the time he became the presumptive Democratic nominee, he was calling for an “immediate cancellation of a minimum of $10,000 of student debt per person.”
Now, a year into his presidency, Biden has ignored his own call to action and has instead relied on extending the student loan repayment freeze — which was put in place and extended multiple times during his predecessor’s administration — to avoid facing the problem head on. While he planned to resume payments on Jan. 31, he eventually caved to pressure from activists and progressive members of his own party — though only to extend the payment pause yet again rather than canceling debt.
At some point, though, Biden has to make a choice between making borrowers pay back everything they owed before the pandemic or canceling a significant chunk of their debt to ease their financial burden. In a midterm year, the choice should be clear. The only question is, what is Biden waiting for?
Though the president has passed major, and widely popular, pieces of legislation, his domestic agenda may have already reached its high-water mark. And as such, his approval ratings keep sliding, leaving his prospects of retaining, let alone expanding, his party’s majority in Congress as dim as ever. If he wants to turn that around, he has to take bold action and show Americans that his government will serve them well, with or without Congress. And for now, Biden is left with executive actions to push through the transformative, FDR-sized presidency he once hoped to achieve. That could, of course, change if Democratic Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema stop stonewalling his agenda, but the president should be wasting no time while he waits for them to hop on board.
One surefire way to take popular, sweeping action unilaterally is to cancel student loan debt. There are about 43 million student loan borrowers in the United States, and with a simple stroke of a pen, Biden could meaningfully improve their — and their families’ — lives. By doing so, he may give some of his now-unenthusiastic supporters enough reason to go to the polls in November to support Democrats in Congress — and more of his agenda. And Democrats might not have to face the burden of campaigning alongside a potentially historically unpopular president.
The reason for doing this extends far beyond politics. As I wrote last year, student debt cancellation would make a meaningful difference in reducing the racial wealth gap and in creating economic opportunities for Black people, who have not been served as well by college degrees as their white peers. That’s why in order to make an impact, Biden has to be willing to cancel more than the minimum he promised of $10,000.
Though that doesn’t seem very promising, since he’s apparently reluctant to meet his own call, it’s not necessarily a lost cause. In an interview with the Globe editorial board last month, Senator Elizabeth Warren, a proponent of student debt cancellation who has spoken with Biden about the issue, said there’s reason to be hopeful that he can be pushed in the right direction. “I am optimistic, and the reason is because it’s the right thing to do,” she said. “That’s the ultimate appeal I try to make every time to the president.”
Biden has not been completely opposed to taking action on student loan debt. Since he took office, he has canceled billions of dollars worth of student loans on three occasions — once for people with permanent disabilities, another for borrowers who were victims of fraud by for-profit schools, and a third time for people in public service. But this patchwork of student loan relief is insufficient, and Biden ought to take a wide-scale approach that targets all borrowers.
He should do this despite its hefty estimated price tag of over $600 billion, because, ultimately, Biden’s main priority for his presidency should be to show Americans what government can do for them and how it can improve their lives. That’s how he can start to rebuild faith in democratic institutions after four years of scandal and historic corruption during the Trump administration. And if he really wanted to, Biden could, as early as tomorrow’s sunrise, show more than 43 million people just how helpful the government can be.