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Student loan forgiveness is politically popular. But not all Democrats are on board

President Joe Biden speaks about student loan debt forgiveness in the Roosevelt Room of the White House on Wednesday as Education Secretary Miguel Cardona listens at right.
Evan Vucci
President Joe Biden speaks about student loan debt forgiveness in the Roosevelt Room of the White House on Wednesday as Education Secretary Miguel Cardona listens at right.

President Biden's announcementto forgive up to $10,000 in federal student loan debt and up to $20,000 for Pell Grant recipients has ignited enthusiasm from progressive Democrats lawmakers. But the plan's high cost has put some moderate Democratic candidates on edge.

The Wednesday announcement builds on the momentum from Biden's summer successes of passing major legislation on climate, health care and veterans benefits. And it comes just a few months before the midterm elections — at a time when Biden's approval rating has been hovering around 38%, though according to polling from Gallup in the days just before the announcement, he's enjoying an uptick to 44%, his highest in a year.

The move impacts 43 million borrowers, and particularly targets Black borrowers, who, on average, need to take out more loans to pay for higher education, and take longer to pay it back compared to their white counterparts. Overall, it's a politically popular decision.

"Democrats needed this," Andre Perry, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, told NPR. "I tend to believe people who deliver policy will win the day. ... We're months away and Biden is building momentum at the right time."

Republicans immediately spoke out against student debt forgiveness after Biden's announcement.

"President Biden's student loan socialism is a slap in the face to every family who sacrificed to save for college, every graduate who paid their debt, and every American who chose a certain career path or volunteered to serve in our Armed Forces in order to avoid taking on debt," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said. "This policy is astonishingly unfair."

Biden has said to Republicans that he won't apologize for taking steps to help middle- and lower-income Americans. And the White House further pushed their stance with a viral tweet thread posted Thursday night, targeting Republican lawmakers who took out Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans from earlier in the pandemic. Those loans, though, were not designed to be paid back.

But the skepticism isn't just coming from the GOP. Moderate Democrats, particularly those in tight Senate races this year, have also expressed concerns.

Ohio Senate candidate Rep. Tim Ryan, a Democrat, said Wednesday that the plan sends the "wrong message"to Ohioans who don't have a college degree. Ryan is up against Trump-backed Republican J.D. Vance in one of the tightest Senate races in the country.

There's also concern about how much the plan will cost

Another concern is the sheer cost of forgiving student debt. Estimates from the University of Pennsylvania show the plan could cost around $1 trillion.

Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet, who is up for reelection, said Wednesday that the White House should have laid out a more targeted plan, and a way to pay for it.

"While immediate relief to families is important, one-time debt cancellation does not solve the underlying problem," Bennet said. "Moving forward, we need to reform the system that got us here in the first place with solutions to bring down the absurd cost of college. ... And we need to continue our work to build career pathways to economic security for every American, including those who choose not to pursue a two or four-year degree."

Bennet's opponent, Joe O'Dea, wrote in an email to supporters: "Joe Biden's student loan forgiveness scheme doesn't erase the debt. It puts $300 billion of new debt on the backs of working Americans. The debt is a national crisis. This compounds it."

Some experts say it's still a political win for Biden

Despite pushback from Republicans and some Democrats, Perry says youth voter turnout due to debt forgiveness will make a critical difference in the election. And he adds the argument that forgiving student loan debt is "unfair" likely won't cause voters to flip on a candidate.

"It certainly energizes young people and people with student loan debt, which also includes many Republicans. I think this will have more of a unifying effect than any negative politics consequences he may face," Perry said.

"Overall, it's a political win for Biden because he's delivering on his promises, he has a chance to pick up on some moderate Republicans who have debt. ... This is a universal issue."

Perry also says that even groups and lawmakers who are calling for more debt cancellation will have to applaud Biden's announcement and stay connected to the president, which he says is a "crafty" move from the president.

Dominique Baker, a professor at Southern Methodist University and expert in education policy, said that while there isn't enough research to say how this debt cancellation policy will play out politically, previous research shows that student loan forgiveness does have a "material improvement" on peoples' lives.

"We see that people are more easily able to move around the country, they are earning more money, they are able to reduce the share of defaults that they have on things like credit cards and other types of loans," Baker said. "It feels like one of the best ways to govern is to try to do things to improve peoples' lives, and then make sure people know that you did things to improve their lives."

Baker added that because Biden included more debt forgiveness for Pell Grant recipients in particular, the benefits will extend more to Black and Latinx borrowers.

And among some borrowers, it's providing a bit of hope — and potentially motivation to go to the polls.

"This is like a beacon of hope in field of hopelessness when everything else is going wrong," Sean Wiggs, a junior at UNC Charlotte and a digital strategist for Gen-Z for Change, told NPR.

With Biden's announcement, Wiggs will have some of his debt forgiven and he says it's a good first step — and one that he thinks will motivate his peers to vote.

"A lot of people who may have been apathetic about voting saying, hey, if the government actually works for me, then why would I not go and vote? " he said.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Deepa Shivaram is a multi-platform political reporter on NPR's Washington Desk.