In the days and even weeks after President Joe Biden took the dramatic step of ordering the cancellation of student loan debt for up to 40 million Americans, it was not clear that he would ever publicly focus on the issue again.
Passing references deep into mainstream political speeches was all Biden was willing to give the issue, a reflection of the arduous and divided domestic policy process, and the caution within the White House political team about the broader importance of the theme.
But that changed in a big way Friday when Biden traveled to Delaware State University for an event explicitly tied to his executive action, where he spoke about the debt relief program, provided an update on enrollment and called Republican lawmakers. who have attacked the program.
“This is a game changer. We’re hearing from people all over the country. Over 10,000 students have literally written letters to me so far,” Biden said from the podium in Dover.
Biden came to school on Friday riding the winds of two court victories over the legality of the measure and a smooth launch of the debt relief request. In less than a week since the app launched, Biden said, nearly 22 million people have filled out an application, with the vast majority of those applicants using their phones. But just hours after his comments, a federal appeals court temporarily suspended the program, preventing the administration from canceling loans covered by the policy while the court considers a legal challenge brought by six Republican-led states.
Embedded in the decision to try to bring the issue center stage is what White House officials have seen in polls about its effect on young voters and engagement, particularly young black voters, multiple sources say. While officials expected some impact, the scale caught some by surprise and helped bring the issue to the forefront inside the West Wing.
And while much of the president’s speech focused on student loans, the president also widely credited young people for electing him to office and highlighted other political victories, such as marijuana reforms and infrastructure funding.
The president, delivering the remarks in his home state less than three weeks before the midterm elections, zeroed in on Republican critics of his debt relief plan.
“Let’s talk about who is against helping millions of you who need help,” Biden told students at the university, where 75% of students are Pell grant recipients. “The Republican governors wrote me a letter saying that this relief only helps ‘the elite.’ Does everyone know they are the elite few? I knew you were really special, but no, you are the elite.
“Who the hell do they think they are?” then added.
The main attack on loan shares has been their cost, which has been estimated at hundreds of billions of dollars over the course of 10 years. That is why, just hours before his visit to the state of Delaware, Biden used the Treasury Department’s annual budget results for the most recent fiscal year to tout numbers that will show a fairly dramatic decline in the annual deficit. To be clear, he is mainly linked to the end of the most important emergency programs of the pandemic era. But the release of dry numbers creates a perfect moment for Biden to head off attacks to come later in the day.
In his comments on student debt relief, the president once again highlighted deficit reduction, arguing that “despite what Republican officials say, we can afford student relief.”
Biden’s comments came a day after federal courts blocked two attempts to block the show. Supreme Court Judge Amy Coney Barrett rejected a challenge to the program by a group of Wisconsin taxpayers, and US District Court Judge Henry Autrey dismissed a lawsuit brought by six Republican-led states.
Biden referenced the court decisions on Friday, saying Republicans “have been fighting this in court, but yesterday, a state court and the Supreme Court said, ‘No, we side with Biden.'”
But after Biden’s comments ended, the US Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit issued a temporary stay of the case brought by the GOP-led states. These states had asked the court to act by Sunday, the earliest date the Biden administration had said it would grant student loan discharges.
Now, with the court temporarily suspending the program, the Biden administration has until Monday to respond to that request, and states will have until Tuesday to respond to that response.
This story has been updated with additional developments on Friday.