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President Joe Biden talks to reporters during a news conference in the East Room of the White House on January 19, 2022, in Washington, D.C.

President Joe Biden talks to reporters during a news conference in the East Room of the White House on January 19, 2022, in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Biden Criticized for Ignoring Question on Student Debt Promise

"Biden may have dodged a question today, but he won't be able to ignore 45 million student loan borrowers if he attempts to turn payments back on in May," said one advocate.

Kenny Stancil

Progressives criticized President Joe Biden on Wednesday night for ignoring a reporter's question about whether he plans to keep his promise to cancel $10,000 in student loan debt per federal borrower—and reminded the president that he can do that, and more, with "the stroke of a pen."

At the end of Biden's first press conference of the year, a reporter asked two questions. The first was: "You campaigned on canceling $10,000 in student loans. Do you still plan to do so, and when?"

The second was about whether Biden plans to "reach out to Republicans like Mitt Romney to talk about reforming the Electoral Count Act?" The president spent nearly two minutes responding to that question. But prior to ending the press conference, he didn't say anything about fulfilling his pledge to eliminate $10,000 in student loan debt per borrower.

"Biden may have dodged a question today, but he won't be able to ignore 45 million student loan borrowers if he attempts to turn payments back on in May," Braxton Brewington, press secretary for the Debt Collective—the first debtors' union in the United States—told Insider.

"The president's ignoring of a valid question on student debt and his failure to keep a campaign promise is unfortunately reflective of this administration's failure—whether through incompetence or malice—to address the costly burden of student loans," said Brewington. "$1.8 trillion of crushing student debt is a major policy failure that Biden can fix with the stroke of a pen."

Since Biden took office one year ago to the day, borrowers, activists, and lawmakers—led by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), and Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.)—have been pushing the president to not only follow through on his $10,000 pledge but to cancel at least $50,000 in student loan debt per borrower.

Biden, who has suggested erroneously that he lacks the executive authority to broadly cancel student debt without legislation, asked the Department of Education last April to prepare a memo on the subject.

In October, it was revealed that the Biden administration received the memo on April 5—thanks to documents and internal Education Department emails obtained by the Debt Collective through a Freedom of Information Act request.

Although Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and other members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus urged Education Secretary Miguel Cardona to release the memo by October 22, the Biden administration has so far refused to make it public.

Despite the White House's intransigence, legal experts say the Higher Education Act of 1965 clearly empowers Biden to direct Cardona to eliminate student loan debt for all 45 million borrowers in the U.S.

Section 432(a) of the law states that the education secretary has the authority to modify loan terms and "enforce, pay, compromise, waive, or release any right, title, claim, lien, or demand, however acquired, including any equity or any right of redemption."

"$1.8 trillion of crushing student debt is a major policy failure that Biden can fix with the stroke of a pen."

Following weeks of sustained pressure from economic justice advocates and progressive lawmakers, Biden announced in December that his administration would use that very same authority to extend the federal moratorium on student loan payments—which began in March 2020 and was set to expire at the end of this month—until May 1.

While applauding the move, Brewington said at the time that "the Biden administration should permanently relieve this financial burden on families and the economy by using his executive authority to eliminate all federal student debt. With the stroke of a pen, Biden can dramatically boost the economy, narrow the racial wealth gap, keep a key campaign promise, and deliver a much needed Jubilee for the 99%."

In a statement, Biden cited the surging Covid-19 pandemic and continued "economic upheaval" as reasons to extend the payment pause for an additional three months. However, in the final paragraph of his statement, the president indicated that he does not intend to heed demands for broad-based student debt cancellation.

Progressives, meanwhile, have stressed that prolonging the payment freeze only postpones financial hardship for millions of borrowers—already struggling before federal lawmakers allowed the child tax credit to lapse amid the Omicron wave—and are imploring Biden to provide much-needed relief.

The Debt Collective, as Common Dreams reported last year, has drafted an executive order for the president directing Cardona to "cancel all obligations to repay federal student loans," which would save borrowers hundreds of dollars per month and boost the nation's gross domestic product by more than $173 billion in the first year alone.

With Biden's push for the Build Back Better Act and the Freedom to Vote: John R. Lewis Act at a standstill due to obstructionism by corporate Democrats and Republicans in Congress, progressives have made the case that the president must use his existing executive authority to the fullest extent possible—including by canceling at least $50,000 in student loan debt per borrower—to deliver material gains for the working-class and stave off an electoral disaster in the midterms.

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