The Supreme Court’s looming decision over the legality of President Biden’s student loan forgiveness program is threatening to undermine a key pillar of the president’s outreach to young voters and efforts to tackle racial inequality.
Biden himself acknowledged last week that while he was confident his forgiveness of up to $20,000 in federal student debt is legal, he was less sure the Supreme Court and its 6-3 conservative majority would uphold it.
A Supreme Court reversal would leave millions of Americans scrambling while striking down a key part of Biden’s legacy that excited the progressive wing of the Democratic base.
“One of the main concerns is, how does the sitting president meet, in this case, his promises that he made to young people? There’s still a lot left to go,” said John Paul Mejia, chief national spokesperson at the Sunrise Movement.
“When the president is able to tout a message that says, it’s fine, it’ll get better, trust me. That’s not enough. Young people are feeling really alienated in an economy that … doesn’t really work for us and never has,” Mejia said.
Biden said last week that he’s not confident that the Supreme Court will clear his plan, but the White House has avoided outlining any kind of Plan B.
“Right now, the plan that we have before the Supreme Court is the plan that we have for the American people,” press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said on Monday. “We believe that again, we have the legal authority, that the other side does not, it does not have the standing or the merit to really move forward with what they’re trying to do.”
She also took a jab at challenges to the program, which have come from six GOP-led states as well as from two individuals, calling it “unfortunate that we have certain elected officials across the country that are trying to prevent nurses and doctors and teachers from getting this type of benefit.”
Biden’s student debt plan was a clear nod to progressives, who wanted to see forgiveness granted through executive action since the beginning of his administration. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and others had pushed the president to forgive up to $50,000 in federal debt before Biden settled on $20,000.
The policy was also among the most prominent ways Biden’s administration had sought to close the racial inequality gap, something that the president and Vice President Harris speak frequently about as a focus of their administration.
Roughly 70 percent of Black undergraduates with student loans are Pell Grant recipients, and 65 percent of Latino undergraduate borrowers are Pell Grant recipients, meaning those minority groups were more likely to benefit from loan forgiveness.
White House officials have maintained confidence that the loan program is on solid legal footing, and they pointed to other ways Biden has sought to address racial inequality, including through funding for historically Black colleges and universities, executive orders to eliminate barriers to jobs and housing for minorities, and initiatives to increase diversity and opportunity in government.
But the student loan forgiveness program is perhaps Biden’s most high-profile effort to date, and it is one that resonated with young voters, many of whom were skeptical about Biden during the 2020 Democratic primary but had come around since he took office.
Voters ages 18-29 backed Biden over former President Trump 59 percent to 35 percent in the 2020 election, according to Pew Research data. And young voters helped carry Democrats to a better-than-expected midterm election performance last November, according to a Brookings Institution analysis.
Biden’s approval rating among 18 to 29-year-olds sat at 39 percent last November, down from 41 percent last spring, according to a national poll conducted by the Institute of Politics at Harvard Kennedy School.
While a final ruling isn’t expected until this summer, a decision to strike down Biden’s plan could give the president ample fodder to go on offense against Republicans heading into 2024, and strategists said he should be prepared to do so.
“It’s only going to further the anger at Republicans through the youth vote,” said Michael Starr Hopkins, a progressive strategist. “I think that Joe Biden should go after the Republican attorneys general, and therefore the Republican Party, that are attacking the student loan forgiveness. These are kids. There are kids all over the country who have been straddled with six figures in debt.”
Biden will struggle to accomplish much legislatively toward his agenda with the Republican-controlled House, and he has started to steer Democrats toward touting accomplishments from the last two years while out on the campaign trail in 2024.
But progressives aren’t satisfied with just those accomplishments and want to see more through executive action.
“Seeing a president who was elected by the majority of people in this country, seeing a president who crossed the finish line in a hard-fought election in 2020 in large part because young people showed up, we want to see a fight in that president and we can’t just see a president sit down and lay back and not do anything about that,” Meija said.