WASHINGTON (AP) — Faced with the possibility that the Supreme Court will throw out President Joe Biden’s student loan forgiveness plan, the White House is aiming to turn the political heat on Republicans while fending off criticism from disaffected borrowers.
At stake is the loyalty of young, college-educated voters who are a critical part of the Democratic coalition that Biden is counting on to return him to the White House for a second term. And a lot of people make sure not to forget.
“The president still has a responsibility to make sure this becomes a reality,” said Wisdom Cole, national director of the NAACP’s Youth and College Division. “There are people who are still suffering, and we want to make sure they have the opportunity to see relief.”
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Wednesday that the president will make it clear to borrowers that he’s “behind your back,” but it’s far from clear that the administration has a backup idea to cancel the debt.
“We have no other plan,” she told reporters. “This is our plan. That’s it.”
In arguments this week, the court’s conservative majority appeared deeply skeptical of Biden’s plan, which would reduce the burden of federal student loan debt through an executive order he signed last year.
In all, up to 43 million Americans could benefit. Of the 26 million who applied for relief, 16 million were approved, according to administration officials. However, any help is on hold due to legal challenges from Republicans.
“I’m confident we’re on the right side of the law,” Biden told reporters Wednesday at the White House. “I’m not sure about the outcome of the decision.”
With a Supreme Court ruling expected by summer, the White House is vigorously labeling the culprits — and will surely hit that message harder if the court kills the program.
“Right now, the only thing blocking that plan is opponents of the plan suing us,” Biden said Monday during a Black History Month reception at the White House.
Foreshadowing what aides said would be his likely policy message if the court strikes down the plan, Biden criticized Republicans who sued and those in Congress who cheered them on.
“These are the same people who were forgiven hundreds of thousands of dollars, even millions of dollars in pandemic relief loans,” he said. “And many of them in Congress, by the way, Republicans, who voted for tax cuts (that) largely benefit the richest people in America, who are the people who paid to bring these suits.”
Clearly, not everyone sees it that way. In fact, Republicans seem happy to fight over student debt repayment, saying it’s actually the Democrats’ “bailout for the rich” plan.
“Biden’s student loan cancellation unfairly penalizes Americans who saved for college or chose other careers,” Ronna McDaniel, chairwoman of the Republican National Committee, said in a statement Tuesday. “As hard-working families struggle with rising costs, Biden gives a gift to the rich, and voters see right through this desperate vote margin.”
Some legal experts have suggested that Biden’s plan has always been on shaky legal ground, and have called on the administration to start over. But White House officials insist they are still confident in their case.
One basis for that hope is that the justices could rule that the plaintiffs, who include several Republican-led states and two college students, lack legal standing to sue.
The administration is also drawing parallels to the difficult overhaul of the Affordable Care Act more than a decade ago. The court ultimately upheld most of the provisions of that law.
While publicly reluctant to address the prospect of a court return, Biden aides privately believe that, despite all the unpleasantness, there is little to be lost politically if the Supreme Court strikes down the loan forgiveness program the president proposed and championed.
The administration relayed Biden’s efforts to the tens of millions of people whose emails were collected as part of the application process.
Research data show that a university degree is increasingly linked to identification with the Democratic Party. Forty-one percent of Democratic voters in 2019 had at least a college degree, up from just 22 percent in 1996, according to a survey by the Pew Research Center. By comparison, 30% of GOP voters in 2019 had a bachelor’s degree, up slightly from 27% in 1996.
Biden won the support of a majority of college-educated voters in the 2020 presidential election, according to AP VoteCast.
In 2022, VoteCast found that college graduates who voted in the midterm elections were slightly more likely than those without a degree to approve of Biden’s job on solving student debt, 50% versus 44%.
VoteCast also shows that the youngest voters in the midterms were especially likely to approve of Biden’s job dealing with student debt. Sixty percent of voters under 30 approved, compared to 39% of voters age 65 and older.
Biden issued the executive order on debt relief only after months of pressure from activists, as Democratic lawmakers reminded protesters outside the Supreme Court this week.
“You all rallied around this country to try to make sure that our president, who was hesitant at the time, finally realized that this was not just a politically viable thing to do, but that it was the right thing to do,” said Rep. Ilhan Omar, D -Minn. “And after we got the president to sign an executive order, ending student debt, bringing hope and promise to millions of people who were begging, marching, what did the Republicans do? What they always do is rob the American people of hope.”
Even if the broad debt cancellation is reversed, other major policies adopted by the Department of Education will remain in place. For example, the agency revamped a loan forgiveness program for public workers, making it easier for them to erase their debt after 10 years of repayment. The department made it especially easy for borrowers to cancel their debt if they were defrauded by their schools.
Through those policies and others, the ministry says it has already provided $48 billion in loan relief to 1.8 million borrowers.
In perhaps the biggest change in a long time, the administration is now pursuing a new loan repayment plan that promises to serve as a safety net for borrowers. The plan would lower monthly payments for many borrowers and allow them to pay nothing while their incomes remain below a certain level. And for many borrowers, the plan would wipe out all remaining debt after 10 years of repayment.
However, no issue has garnered as much attention as debt cancellation.
Melissa Byrne, an activist who helped organize the demonstration outside the Supreme Court, said the issue will not go away if the payments are reinstated.
“Every month,” she said, “they will be reminded that the right-wing infrastructure stole their money.”
Associated Press writers Collin Binkley and Hannah Fingerhut contributed to this report.