Progressives Need to Keep Pushing

Way back when, Joe Biden promised to forgive student debt. It wasn’t clear how much he’d forgive—he said $10,000 per borrower while legislators pressured him to forgive up to $50,000, or even all of it. September 30 was a general target date, if only because it’s the end of the federal moratorium on student loan payments. But even with that target in mind, most borrowers weren’t holding their breath.

It turns out they were right not to.

According to The Washington Post, the White House budget won’t include student loan forgiveness when it’s released this coming Thursday. It also won’t include certain healthcare provisions like the public option or prescription drug reform. All were Biden campaign promises, some of the best things he ran on. But for now, at least, they’re history.

The administration is reportedly focusing on its infrastructure package. It announced $500 billion worth of cuts to the bill in an effort to appease Republicans, trimming it from $2.25 trillion to $1.7 trillion. Republicans, though, don’t think it’s enough. White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki described it as “the art of seeking common ground,” but it looks more like “the art of negotiating against yourself for no good reason.”

None of these developments are shockers. Biden was a moderate (at best) going into the campaign and he’s a moderate to this day. He doesn’t believe in going big and told New York Times columnist David Brooks as much last week. Biden desperately wants to create bipartisan consensus in a political realm that doesn’t allow for one and, more importantly, doesn’t require it. The policies he’s dropping and bill he’s slashing are popular. His party holds majorities in both houses of Congress. The arithmetic here isn’t difficult.

Once again, the task falls to progressive legislators to continue pressuring the president. A photo of Rep. Rashida Tlaib confronting Biden over his hardline stance on Israel went viral last week; within days the administration reportedly began pressuring the Israeli government for a ceasefire. That didn’t (and won’t) end violence against Palestinians or the Biden administration’s support for Israel. But it’s that kind of confrontational politics that gets things across. Optics work. And so does taking problems to someone directly.

Lawmkers like Reps. Tlaib, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ayanna Pressley, Jahana Hayes, Ilhan Omar and others have kept up the pressure on student loan forgiveness. Sens. Chuck Schumer, Elizabeth Warren, and Bernie Sanders have continued their calls for large-scale relief. Biden isn’t going to come around easily. He comes from an era where you work across the aisle no matter what; some realization about our polarized political reality isn’t suddenly going to snap into place. If progressive legislators really want this done, they need to confront the problem—and the president—loudly and directly. They need to continue explaining why it’s good policy and good politics. That it’s the kind of relief that could carry Democrats to easy victories in 2022 and beyond.

The last bit is reason enough to hold out hope. Biden isn’t including student debt forgiveness in this year’s budget, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be in next year’s. And while he’s hellbent on passing relief through Congress, maybe another year of working with uncooperative Republicans will push him toward an executive order. Or perhaps the administration is playing 4-D chess and saving a massively popular policy for an election year. The latter is just as likely as the former, but it won’t do much for the millions who need this relief as soon as possible. Broken campaign promises are an inevitability with new presidents. In this case, they’re a signal for the fight to continue.