Before even taking office, journalists were already elevating Joe Biden to the ranks of those greatest of Democratic presidents, the ones known not by their names but their initials. Not that he was a three-letter president; no one’s ever called him “JRB.” But he could be, hoped to be. Most of all, had to be. The numerous crises facing the country demanded it. And so, he let it be known during the 2020 campaign, his would be an FDR-sized presidency.
Two years later, no one is comparing Joe Biden to FDR. If his name is mentioned alongside LBJ’s, it is only to note how far short the achievements of the 46th president have come compared to the 36th. The one predecessor Biden does find himself sharing a breath with these days is Jimmy Carter, who also presided over rampant inflation at home and debacles abroad.
The flattering comparisons have crumbled in tandem with his agenda. Biden entered office with ambitious plans on climate change, gun control, the minimum wage, immigration, criminal justice reform, healthcare, childcare, parental leave, voting rights, tax hikes on the rich, and a host of other issues, many of which were supposed to be folded into the moribund Build Back Better bill. Yet over the past year, his program has been trimmed relentlessly, as one policy after another has fallen by the wayside like a tree being whittled to a toothpick.
With major action unlikely and the midterm elections rapidly approaching, Biden is now scrambling for any victory he can get, however modest or Pyrrhic it may be. This is especially the case as progressives and other core Democratic constituencies have grown increasingly restive and dissatisfied with what they see as a lack of movement on their priorities. Hence, Biden’s recent embrace of student debt forgiveness and continuing efforts to lift Title 42, the directive first implemented by the Trump administration at the southern border to expel illegal immigrants on COVID grounds, on May 23. Both initiatives have support within the Democratic Party, but that support is far from universal. Biden nonetheless seems determined to push ahead. He needs something, anything, to show the base that he’s with them, even if the cost of placating it is alienating the rest of the country even more.
He’s already alienated members of his own party, who have understandably been spooked by predictions of 18,000 migrants a day flooding the border once Title 42 is rescinded. State, local, and federal officials have averred repeatedly that their facilities are at the breaking point and lack the capacity to handle the additional crush. The more dire the warnings became, the more agitated became those Democrats facing voters in elections this year. Assurances from the White House and Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas did little to assuage them.
Instead, one swing state Democrat after another criticized the proposal, including such progressive darlings as Sens. Raphael Warnock of Georgia and Mark Kelly of Arizona, as well as Senate candidates John Fetterman of Pennsylvania and Mandela Barnes of Wisconsin. Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada, the first Latina senator, also urged the administration to hold off. One vulnerable Democrat, Maggie Hassan, became an object of bipartisan ridicule when she expressed her concern about the impending shift by staging a photo op at the border, more than 2,000 miles from her home state of New Hampshire.
Despite its own second thoughts and the burgeoning intraparty “rebellion” (as multiple media outlets have called it), the White House has refused to change course. For all the opposition to the new policy, many on the Left want it. Groups such as the Center for American Progress and the ACLU have beseeched the administration to revoke Title 42. So have Democrats from Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer to “Squad” members such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Immigration advocates have warned that not killing what they deem a “cruel” and “racist” policy will further dampen the already diminished enthusiasm of base voters such as young people and minorities.
Activists may want Title 42 gone, but the broader public stands with presumptive North Carolina Democratic Senate nominee Cheri Beasley in the “not so fast” camp. According to Fox News’s most recent poll, 63% of voters want the restrictions kept in place, while CNN’s latest found 57% of people believe the time isn’t right to end them. Strong majorities of Democrats, though, would like them repealed. Which is why Joe Biden will probably go through with it. The rank and file crave it, and unlike so many of the other things they crave, this one he can give them by himself. If the courts don’t stop him, that is: A federal judge in Louisiana issued an injunction to stop DHS from unwinding Title 42 before May 23, and could issue an order preventing it from being undone at all.
President Biden may be hoping the courts save him from another progressive demand, as the judiciary is sure to become involved the moment he announces his decision on student loan forgiveness. Relieving such debt was a hot topic during the 2020 Democratic presidential primary, as candidates such as Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders pushed to excuse up to $50,000 in borrowing or even all outstanding loans entirely. Warren and fellow progressives have periodically pushed the issue since Biden’s election, but it had been mostly dormant until last month, when he extended until Aug. 31 the loan payment pause begun by Donald Trump at the outset of the coronavirus pandemic. No sooner had Biden extended the moratorium than progressives had begun clamoring for him to settle for good the question of whether or not he’s going to eliminate at least some debt.
In response to his rivals’ maximalist pronouncements, Biden pledged to erase a more modest $10,000 per borrower upon taking office. But much to the Left’s chagrin, he never followed through. As for wiping out larger sums, he deprecated the idea not only because he doubted he had the authority (a position seconded by both Nancy Pelosi and the general counsel of Barack Obama’s Department of Education) but because, he explained last year, he’s uncomfortable with the idea of taking a step that might disproportionately benefit Ivy League graduates. To get around that dilemma, his administration is considering limiting relief to those making under $125,000-$150,000 a year or $250,000-$300,000 for a married couple. At those thresholds, 97% of people with loan debt would be eligible.
If Biden does finally keep his promise, his decision would naturally be a popular one with progressives. But it would also be popular with voters, nearly two-thirds of whom polling shows favor forgiveness for at least some borrowers depending on their circumstances (though only 19% approve of eliminating all student debt). Mitch McConnell might lambaste it as “socialism,” but a measure that pleases both the base and the broader public would seem to be a win-win proposition for the president. Yet even some progressive commentators have their doubts.
Only 8% of the poorest fifth in America have student loan debt. But a third of the wealthiest fifth does. All told, about an eighth of households are still paying off student loans. Because the overwhelming majority of people would therefore receive no benefit, warned the writer Michael Cohen, it would be difficult “for Democrats to deflect the argument that forgiving student debt is a sop to the middle class and a middle finger to the working class.” Washington Post columnist Matt Bai argued that cancellation would make suckers of those who played by the rules and paid off their debt or avoided it altogether while reverting the Democratic Party “to its pre-Clinton futility,” when it was routinely rejected for being “the party of the proverbial free lunch.” And Matt Yglesias contended that because debt relief would exacerbate inflation, Biden should instead resume collecting it from all but those in the direst need, as this would be “one of the best and fairest tools available to reduce inflation” since it would constrain the spending power of the better off, a key factor in rising costs.
Americans hate giveaways to the undeserving. Few groups seem more undeserving than well-to-do college graduates and those with graduate degrees (who hold a disproportionate amount of all student loan debt). So, why is Biden likely to forge ahead regardless? Jerusalem Demsas of the Atlantic offered several explanations. It gives the Left something after so many disappointments, for one. Biden can theoretically do it by fiat, for another. But the likeliest reason is the one he saves for last: the dominance of college-educated voters in the Democratic coalition and the institutions that shape its agenda, academia and the media. Those entities are populated by the very demographics that would benefit the most from student debt cancellation. Little wonder they advocate it so zealously.
Biden’s impending surrender on student loans is emblematic of the Democratic Party’s capture by its left flank. The same is true of the decision to sunder Title 42. Neither is a priority of the public; the latter is, in fact, deeply unpopular. Yet both are going to happen because Democrats’ wokest, most progressive factions want them to.
Biden has catered to the base before; for example, when he twice went to Capitol Hill to pitch the bipartisan infrastructure bill to House Democrats but departed without demanding progressives vote for it. He did it then for the same reason he’s doing it now: to save the rest of his agenda. The difference is that now, progressives’ desires are the rest of his agenda. With everything else having been stripped out piece by piece, if he doesn’t fulfill their expectations, he won’t fulfill anyone’s, least of all his own. That Biden must be progressives’ savior to save himself is no doubt mortifying to them both.
Joe Biden is trapped between a rock and a hard place. He needs to salvage whatever he can of his agenda to persuade Democratic voters to turn out this November in order to preserve Democrats’ Senate majority. Yet the steps he takes to salvage whatever he can of his agenda may lead to his not having any agenda next year by endangering that same majority.
Biden finds himself in this predicament in large part because that majority was so tenuous to begin with. A 50-50 Senate with the vice president casting tiebreaking votes is barely a majority at all. It certainly isn’t one robust enough to bear the aspirations of a three-letter presidency. Aspirations that were, moreover, always in tension with Biden’s claim to be the centrist candidate in the field, the one who’d restore calm and turn down the temperature on American politics. Instead, he’s had the worst of both worlds — not being FDR yet stuck trying to push through the most unpopular parts of an expansive, expensive progressive platform.
There is a double irony here. For Biden, seeking to succor the base in his desperation to have something to show for 2022 means abandoning, perhaps for good, the basis of his appeal to voters inside and outside of the Democratic Party: that he was the one candidate who wasn’t a creature of its progressive wing. As for progressives, getting what they want means turning to the last guy they wanted to have the power to give it to them.
Yet even if Title 42 and (some) student loan debt disappear, all sides are likely to remain dissatisfied. Progressives, thanks to the thought of what could have been; Biden, because of the memory of the three-letter president he’ll never be; and the country, due to the realization that while it focused on trying to make ends meet despite soaring prices, Democrats fixated on throwing a sop to some of the country’s most well-off households and mollifying those who believe America shouldn’t have any borders at all. Joe Biden and progressives’ marriage of inconvenience may prove quite inconvenient indeed.
Varad Mehta is a writer and historian. He lives in the Philadelphia area. Find him on Twitter @varadmehta.