WASHINGTON — For student loan activists, the week began with hope as President Joe Biden gave his clearest indication that he was considering canceling federal debt rather than simply allowing borrowers to defer payments during the pandemic.
But that soon gave way to disappointment when Biden signaled days later that any debt relief would be much less than activists wanted. So Melissa Byrne, one of the organizers who has been leading the charge, got back to work.
First, she tweeted that activists need to “ramp up” their efforts, stay “warm + fuzzy” and “fight until we win.” (“White House staff reads tweets,” she explained.) Then she and her allies dove into their group chats as they considered ways to keep the pressure on.
“We need to keep our eye on the prize," Byrne said.
The flurry of activity comes in a crucial stretch, with Biden saying he would make a decision in the coming weeks. After promising to address the issue during his campaign for president, he's now weighing how much federal student loan debt should be canceled and who should benefit.
Critics caution that forgiving debt might anger voters who already paid off their loans, and Republicans describe the idea as a political giveaway in a midterm election year. However, an expansive approach could buoy young people whom Democrats view as a central part of their coalition, allowing Biden to deliver concrete results when many of his proposals from the left remain stalled on Capitol Hill.
John Della Volpe, director of polling at the Harvard Kennedy School Institute of Politics, said student loan forgiveness is "a cornerstone in the relationship between President Biden and young Americans.”
Without young voters on board, “we don’t have a Democratic House, a Democratic Senate and a Democratic president," said Della Volpe, who worked as a consultant for Biden’s campaign.
About 43 million Americans owe $1.6 trillion on their student loans, more than either credit cards or car payments. It's a growing problem for younger people, who have assumed more and more debt to finance their educations when public funding for colleges has declined.
And it's a challenge that Biden has personally experienced. While running for office, he told a student in New Hampshire that he “ended up with a debt of over $280,000” to pay for college and graduate school for his three children.
“I get it,” he said.
In a poll of Americans under 30 years old conducted by the Harvard Kennedy School and released on Monday, 85% said the federal government should take some action on student loan debt.
However, opinions were split about the best path forward. Although 38% supported full cancellation, 21% wanted such a step to be taken for only those with the greatest financial needs. In addition, 27% wanted the government to help with repayment, but not debt cancellation.
Biden said Thursday that he was still considering what to do.
“I’m in the process of taking a hard look at whether or not there will be additional debt forgiveness,” he said. “And I’ll have an answer on that in the next couple of weeks.”
It's possible that his idea will include means testing, which involves limiting by income who would see their debts forgiven.
“He has talked in the past about how, you know, he doesn’t believe that millionaires and billionaires, obviously, should benefit, or even people from the highest income,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Thursday. “So that’s certainly something he would be looking at.”
During the campaign, when Biden was consolidating support in the Democratic primary, he pledged to “immediately” cancel $10,000 in federal student loan debt per person. But he did not use his executive authority to do so once in office — whether he has such power remains the subject of debate in Washington — and Congress took no action on his promise, either.
Now Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., is calling for $50,000 in debt to be canceled and some activists want all debt wiped out without exception.
Biden’s pending decision comes as he struggles to make progress on other parts of his liberal agenda that could appeal to young people, such as tackling climate change by expanding clean energy.
“We need to motivate voters and show them that Democrats are fighting for them," said Emma Lydon, who lobbies for the Progressive Change Campaign Committee. “And this is a slam dunk way to do that."
Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, mocked the idea by tweeting that “desperate polls call for desperate measures.” He added, “Other bribe suggestions: Forgive auto loans? Forgive credit card debt? Forgive mortgages?"
Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster who worked with Biden’s campaign, didn’t see a downside to the inevitable criticism.
“The voters who are going to grouse about this, we weren’t getting them anyway,” she said.
However, the issue can still be controversial among Democrats, even evoking raw emotions at times.
“We just had a fight about this in a focus group last night," Lake said.
An older woman who had paid off her debts didn't like the idea, while a middle-aged man with children was enthusiastic.
Byrne is trying to tip the scales as far as she can, and on Friday she plastered signs around downtown Washington with other activists.
“President Biden: Not 10k, not 50k, no means-testing,” said black letters on a hot pink background. “Cancel student debt, ALL OF IT.”
Some of the signs went outside places where there would be parties during the weekend of the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner. Perhaps they would catch the eye of someone influential as they walked by in a tuxedo or evening gown.
Although it's unclear what Biden's final decision will be, Byrne said activists have already scored a victory.
“We’ve won the argument that we have to cancel student loan debt," she said. "Now it’s about how much we can get.”