If you’re a soccer fan, you’re probably painfully familiar with the concept of an “own goal” — that humiliating moment when a ball ricochets off a defender right into the back of the goal they were diligently trying to defend. But it’s a lot harder to understand when someone drills an own goal in the arena of politics.
And yet President Biden and his team have managed to kick it backward on a white-hot issue that burns millions of Americans yet gets ridiculously short shrift from the rest of the electorate: the $1.7 trillion student loan crisis. In 2020, then-candidate Joe Biden was clear in promising voters a speedy move to eliminate the first $10,000 of an individual’s debt, writing that “young people and other student debt holders bore the brunt of the last crisis.” Advocates pushed for a higher figure of $50,000 but were grateful for the Democrats’ support — noting many experts believe the Higher Education Act gives Biden power to cancel loans by an executive order.
Yet some 11 months into his presidency, Biden has steadfastly refused to do this. Instead, the White House is all in on resuming loan repayments for millions of stressed-out Americans — on hold for nearly two years because of the pandemic — early next year. Not only is the administration keeping secret an internal report on whether Biden has authority to cancel the loans, but now his aides are trying to lay the blame for this fiasco on Congress — even though the White House hasn’t included student debt relief in any of its major economic bills.
A stunningly tone-deaf Jen Psaki, Biden’s press secretary, heralded the resumption of loan payments in February by stating “a smooth transition back into repayment is a high priority for the administration.” Not a priority then, for Team Biden, would be either the economic benefits of lifting the millstone that’s prevented so many 20-somethings and 30-somethings from buying a house or even getting married and starting a family, or the moral benefits of undoing a system that — because of the wealth gap — falls hardest on Black and brown Americans.
But arguably the worst look for Biden, and his Democratic Party, is the political fallout. A recent YouGov poll conducted for the Economist found a massive drop in support for Biden among the young voters under age 30 who were so critical to the president’s 2020 election victory — both by giving the Democrat a big margin and also by turning out in larger-than-average numbers. Now, Biden’s roughly 50% plunge in net approval with these young voters portends a 2022 disaster for the Democrats, since many disillusioned young voters may just stay home.
The implosion of Biden’s popularity with teen and 20-something voters couldn’t come at a worse time for the Democrats. Just this week, the stubborn opposition of West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, increasingly a Democrat-in-name-only who seems to work better with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce than his supposed colleagues, is threatening the Biden program that includes climate action, pre-kindergarten and extending the popular child tax credit. And a proposed pivot to the critical issue of voting rights would need a 180-degree change of heart about the filibuster from Manchin and Arizona Democratic Sen. Kyrsten Sinema.
Ironically, this could have been a very good week for the Democrats because of the high-profile work of the House Select Committee investigating the Jan. 6 insurrection aimed at keeping Donald Trump in the presidency. New information emerging from the probe shows both a) the depths to which Team Trump was plotting a coup to prevent Biden from becoming president and b) the ways in which a new effort to install Trump in 2024, regardless of the vote count, is afoot.
But this isn’t 1974, when Democrats scored a midterm landslide as voters punished the GOP for Richard Nixon’s Watergate. In capturing the thinnest possible majority on Capitol Hill — a vice presidential tiebreaker in the Senate and currently a three-vote margin in the House — Democrats seemingly got carried away in promoting Biden as a new FDR. That created a scenario in which instead of being rewarded for the substantial things he’s done — large-scale COVID-19 relief into a booming jobs market, an infrastructure bill and restoring some honor to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. — Biden faces a whupping for what’s left undone.
The worst thing for Biden is that his biggest flops, so far, have fallen hardest on the voters who could turn the tide in the 2022 midterms with some enthusiasm, by reversing their history of low turnouts in nonpresidential years. These include the under-30 voters who’ve seen their biggest issues — college debt, free community college, climate action — the first to fall, and Black and brown voters who don’t feel Democrats are going to the mat to save voting rights.
In theory, it’s not too late for Democrats to turn the aircraft carrier around before it sinks, but time is of the essence. Here’s four potential game-changers.
1) Biden announces substantial student debt forgiveness before payments resume in February. The White House would be wise to claim the executive authority that many lawmakers and legal experts believe that Biden has to — at the very minimum — deliver the $10,000-per-individual debt forgiveness that he so clearly promised in his 2020 campaign. It’s a boost for the economy that helps everyone. It would help, though, if Biden paired such an announcement with aid for noncollege youth, such as government help for trade schools.
2) Channel your inner LBJ to pass a voting rights bill as soon as possible. Two bills aimed at restoring voting rights — the Freedom to Vote Act, and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which has already passed the House — seem to have the necessary 50 votes (plus the vice president) to pass the Senate. What’s needed is a rule change that will effectively neuter the filibuster, at least on this issue. Although there are some doubters over the effectiveness of the Freedom to Vote Act, the real issue is much bigger. Democrats need to show their own voters they’ll fight for them, rather than find excuses for inaction.
3) Declare a climate emergency and act accordingly. This month’s killer tornadoes and insane wind storms in the American heartland are more than enough of a trigger for Congress to pass a version of Build Back Better that contains whatever workable climate provisions exist within the reality of dealing with Manchin, who makes more money owning a coal company than from his day job in the Senate. But like Barack Obama before him, Biden should also be aggressive in using his executive powers to wean America off fossil fuels.
4) Scrap the initial scheme for Build Back Better to go large and go long on one big social program. Last summer, a more optimistic Democratic Party crammed an ambitious cradle-to-grave social agenda into one giant bill — not because that made sense but because it was the only way to bypass the Republican filibuster. With Manchin arbitrarily imposing his own spending limits on the bill, the BBB has become a mishmosh of half measures. Take the most popular program — arguably the child tax credit that is cutting child poverty in half — and fully fund it over a number of years, as protection against a GOP win in 2022. (Minutes after I wrote this paragraph, Manchin went on Fox News to state his opposition to pretty much doing anything, but let’s apply some pressure on the wayward West Virginian to consider ... something.)
Those four moves wouldn’t squelch some lingering disappointment over what didn’t get done — pre-K, or paid family leave, or free community college — but it would allow Democrats to run with a real track record, and as fighters for the middle-class folks who need to show up in November 2022. It also means the major disclosures about Jan. 6 and the contempt for democracy from Trump and those seeking to restore him to power won’t fall on the deaf ears of rank-and-file Democrats infuriated over debacles like Biden’s student loan misfire.
With the Republican Party completely off the rails, a functioning Democratic Party is indeed the best hope of saving our democratic norms. In theory, exposing the treachery of Jan. 6 and its support at the highest levels of the GOP would be enough. In reality, voters won’t care about the loftier mission of preserving liberty unless the Dems get real about their everyday, bread-and-butter concerns. It means doing the things that show young people there’s an actual difference between the two parties. It means scoring some goals instead of kicking it into your own net.
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