content-header__row content-header__hed” data-testid=”ContentHeaderHed”>Joe Biden’s Honeymoon With Progressive Democrats Is Officially OverWith his announcement that he “will not” cancel $50,000 of student loan debt, Biden commenced the first battle with the progressives who helped to elect him.
February 18, 2021
Joe Biden appears at a CNN town hall in Milwaukee on February 16.SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images
Throughout much of his presidential campaign, Joe Biden was viewed with skepticism, and even outright hostility, by progressives. But a leftward shift during the general election and a promising first month in office has been generally heartening for the more liberal wing of the party, without alienating the moderates who helped him earn the Democratic nomination. But this week, for the first time in his presidency, a fissure has opened between Biden and progressive Democrats.
At issue: Student debt. Progressives like Elizabeth Warren and even party leaders like Chuck Schumer have called for the administration to forgive up to $50,000 in student loans. “The federal government has turned its back on Americans young and old with student loan debt,” Warren and Schumer wrote in a joint op-ed last month, shortly after Biden and Kamala Harris took office. “The system failed them.” But in CNN town hall Tuesday, Biden made clear he views that proposal as a non-starter: “I will not make that happen,” Biden said, telling the audience he’d be prepared to “write off $10,000” as he had promised during the campaign.
That rankled progressives, who shot down Biden’s rationale for opposing the more ambitious plan. The frustration continued after White House press secretary Jen Psaki pumped the brakes even on the $10,000 plan, suggesting to reporters during a briefing Wednesday that the president wouldn’t take executive action until it undergoes a legal review. “We’ll wait for that conclusion before a final decision is made,” Psaki said. Warren and Schumer said that wasn’t an excuse, noting in a statement Wednesday that Barack Obama and Donald Trump each used executive authority to cancel debt. “It’s time to act,” they wrote. “Biden has the authority to cancel $50K in student loan debt,” progressive Representative Ilhan Omar wrote Thursday morning, “and can do so with the stroke of a pen.”
Biden has framed his opposition to the $50,000 proposal as a matter of both policy and principle: He has expressed concern that such a proposal would forgive the debt of individuals who attended elite universities and make high salaries, and on Tuesday suggested he didn’t have the authority to do so anyway. But Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and others have dismissed the former, pointing out that wealthy individuals don’t exactly make up a big chunk of those buried in student loan debt, and have summarily shot down the latter. “He can and must use [his authority],” Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley wrote this week. “The people deserve nothing less.”
Even the $10,000 in forgiveness Biden supports would make a major difference, and progressives have expressed hope that, through pressure on the administration, Biden’s more modest plan will be a starting point, rather than the limit. “We will continue to press the president for a number that better reflects the crisis and better addresses the racial equity issues,” Alexis Goldstein, senior policy analyst at Americans for Financial Reform, told Politico Wednesday evening. How responsive Biden is to that pressure—both on student loans and a minimum wage hike, another brewing dispute between the president and progressives—could mean a lot, both for the Americans who would benefit from the policies and for his ability to keep the Democratic coalition from fracturing. “This is the first key decision,” progressive Representative Ro Khanna told the Los Angeles Times Thursday, referring to the minimum wage fight, “on a real commitment to progressive values.”
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