White House confronts political pressure to extend pause in student loan payments ahead of midterms

WASHINGTON — As the May 1 deadline to resume federal student loan payments approaches, President…

WASHINGTON — As the May 1 deadline to resume federal student loan payments approaches, President Joe Biden faces pressure from some Democrats and debt relief advocates to keep loan payments on pause at least through the midterm elections.

Advocates for student debt relief argue that allowing the payments to resume ahead of the midterms could depress turnout of the Democratic base, especially as the president has been unable to deliver on key legislative priorities — such as his Build Back Better agenda and voting rights — and as inflation concerns continue to grip the country.

Allowing payments to resume, some Democrats argue, could come at a political cost for the party as it tries to defend its slim majorities in the House and the Senate.

​​“Democrats win when Democrats deliver,” said Rep. Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass. “Failing to extend the pause on student loan payments and fulfill his promise to cancel student debt would be unconscionable.”

Debt relief advocates have been sharing polling data and research with the White House to try to convince the administration that the pause is popular among voters and that failing to extend it would negatively affect Democrats in November. Advocates who have been in conversation with the White House describe administration officials as reluctant to endorse another extension but keenly aware that allowing it to expire this close to the midterms could backfire.

A White House official said Friday that the administration didn’t have “any decisions to preview yet” about the payment pause but stressed that Americans haven’t been required to “pay a single dime” in federal student loans since Biden took office.

Data for Progress, a liberal think tank that regularly shares its polling with the White House, found in a survey last month that 59 percent of likely voters either “strongly support” or “somewhat support” extending the payment pause through the end of the year, while 33 percent “somewhat oppose” or “strongly oppose” an extension. 

Another survey, from the Student Debt Crisis Center this month, also found that 93 percent of borrowers say they aren’t prepared to resume payments on May 1.

“It’s politically problematic to restart these payments leading up to midterms,” said Marcela Mulholland, the political director of Data for Progress. “Once you give people something, it’s hard then to take it away, even if it’s done under extreme and unique circumstances.”

Biden’s job approval rating hovers around 43 percent, according to NBC News polls, with support among key parts of the Democratic base having eroded since his inauguration. Over his first year in office, Biden’s approval rating has declined among Black voters (83 percent to 64 percent), those ages 18 to 34 (56 percent to 40 percent), Latinos (59 percent to 48 percent) and women (61 percent to 51 percent).

With the exception of former President Donald Trump, who had a 39 percent approval rating, Biden’s job performance rating is the lowest for a president ending his first year in the 30-year history of the NBC News poll. 

The Federal Reserve estimated that in the fourth quarter of 2021, Americans owed more than $1.7 trillion in student loans. Studies show that students of color are more likely to take on student debt and struggle disproportionately to pay it back. The highest default rates are among students who attended for-profit institutions.

Wisdom O. Cole, the national director of the NAACP Youth & College Division, said that many issues important to Black voters have hit roadblocks in Congress but that extending the payment pause was a step Biden could take without congressional approval to help shore up his approval among Black voters.

“Police reform failed. Voting rights is not passed. You need to do something for Black America or Black America will not vote for him again,” Cole said.

“When we think about the upcoming midterm elections, we can do great work, we can register voters, we can turn out voters. But if there isn’t real, tangible policy that’s changing people’s lives, folks will not turn out the way that we want them to do so,” he added.

Federal student loan holders haven’t had to make payments since March 2020, when former President Donald Trump signed into law the CARES Act, which paused payments through September 2020 and eliminated interest rates for the roughly 42 million borrowers.

Trump later took executive action to extend the deferral period through January 2021. Biden, on his first day in office, signed an executive order continuing it through Sept. 30. He issued another extension in September, giving borrowers until Jan. 31 before they would have to resume making payments. In December, he again extended the pause through May 1.

The moratorium doesn’t apply to borrowers with privately held loans.

Although the White House hasn’t indicated whether Biden will issue another extension, many advocates feel encouraged by the fact that the administration isn’t ruling it out entirely, as was the case last fall, when the White House explicitly said it wouldn’t extend the pause beyond Jan. 31. Biden changed course after the omicron variant of the coronavirus hit.

Asked last month whether Biden was worried about the potential political cost of restarting student loan payments so close to the elections, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the administration “will have to make a decision about what’s next.”

“We’ve obviously been clear on what we’re preparing for, but the president is going to make these decisions based on what we’re seeing in economic data and what we feel is certainly needed at this time in the country,” she said. 

While some Democrats view extending the payment pause as an easy political win for Biden, others worry that it could signal to voters that the pandemic isn’t yet over and remind them that inflation and rising prices are leaving many people feeling economically strained.

Some Democrats also worry that there might never be a politically opportune time for payments to restart and that keeping them paused could fuel calls for Biden to go a step further and cancel student debt — a move on which he has been reluctant to engage.

“We want to show a strong economy, for sure, and I think turning on the student loan payments probably is one indicator of saying, ‘Look, the economy is strong enough; we can do this,’” said Jared Bass, the senior director for higher education at the Center for American Progress, an influential Democratic-aligned think tank.

“But at the end of the day,” Bass said, “we’re still in a pandemic.”