WASHINGTON — The White House couldn't risk looking flat-footed.
After the Supreme Court scrapped President Joe Biden's plan to ease the student debt burden, he moved quickly Friday to reassure core Democratic voters that he’ll find a way to make good on a signature campaign promise.
Within minutes of the court’s 6-3 ruling, the White House released a statement saying that Biden is “not done fighting yet” and had “prepared for this scenario.” After learning about the ruling from top aides, Biden met privately with them to consider next steps, White House officials said.
Later in the afternoon, he rolled out new plans that the White House said would ensure financially "vulnerable" borrowers who miss payments through the end of September 2024 are not considered delinquent. He also announced new repayment options that would be made available to borrowers.
"It's going to take longer," the president said in brief remarks from the White House, "but in my view it's the best path that remains to providing for as many borrowers as possible with debt relief."
Biden faces a tough re-election campaign and can ill afford to leave young and minority voters upset over having to make student loan payments they thought might be forgiven or significantly reduced. After a pause that started in 2020 due to the Covid pandemic, payments are now set to resume in the fall.
In the run-up to the court’s decision, Biden's allies had warned him that he needed to come out with an alternative plan if the justices scuttled his loan forgiveness program. Black college graduates owe about $25,000 more than their white counterparts and stand the most to lose if Biden doesn’t find a way to provide broad debt relief — an issue that has energized a loyal bloc of Democratic voters.
"We’ve built income, but not wealth, so Black students borrow and default at higher rates," Rep. Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass., said in an interview after the ruling came down.
“The White House must act. Forty three million peoples’ lives have been dramatically altered by this decision,” she added, referring to the number of people who would have benefitted from Biden's initial plan for student loans. “This is going to be keeping people up at night and they deserve this relief. A promise is a promise.”
In recent weeks, White House officials gave no hint of their preparations for the Supreme Court ruling. Once the decision came down, though, they moved swiftly in an effort to show voters that they'd been prepared.
Beginning several weeks ago, White House chief of staff Jeff Zients started leading weekly meetings to develop options in case the court struck down the program, officials said. White House aides met with allies in Congress along with student loan relief advocates as they examined potential solutions.
Biden’s plan would have allowed borrowers to erase up to $20,000 in student loan debt, at a total cost of about $400 billion. The program, released in August, proved popular with younger voters. A survey at the end of May by Data Progress, a progressive polling firm, and the nonprofit group Student Borrower Protection Center found that 77 percent of voters under the age of 45 favored the proposal, compared to 18 percent who opposed it.
It is now crucial for Biden to take meaningful action, liberal groups said, adding that hesitation on the White House's part could risk a voter backlash.
“He has to solve this,” said Natalia Abrams, president of the Student Debt Crisis Center. “It is unfathomable for these people to make a payment come Oct. 1 when the president of the United States told them they don’t have to. He has to stick to his campaign promise and his promise as president.”
Biden’s standing among young voters has been up-and-down for most of his presidency. He released his plan to forgive student loan debt at a moment when his job rating among young voters was dismal. Only 36 percent of people aged 18 to 34 approved of his performance then, compared to 58 percent who disapproved.
A dramatic turnaround followed the unveiling of his plan: Biden’s approval rating among younger voters jumped by a net 25 percentage points. In September, 48 percent approved of his performance, compared to 45 percent who disapproved.
Biden has broadened his support among young voters of late, but he still isn't close to matching the approval ratings of the last Democratic president, Barack Obama. At a comparable point in Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign, Americans age 18-34 approved of his performance by a margin of 20 points. For Biden, the margin this month was just 7 points, NBC News polling shows.
Advocates credit Biden with addressing ways to whittle down the $1.75 trillion in outstanding student debt. Yet ahead of the Supreme Court ruling, they warned that he owned the problem whatever the justices decided.
In a recent letter to Biden, NAACP officials Derrick Johnson and Wisdom Cole wrote: “Let us be clear — absent further, swift action in the wake of an unfavorable ruling from the court, Black voters stand to be incredibly disillusioned by an administration who failed to deliver on key campaign promises, but succeeded in widening the racial wealth gap and propelling their families, friends, neighbors, and colleagues into economic uncertainty.”
The court's ruling may open a new front in the presidential campaign: the sweeping societal changes flowing from the Supreme Court's conservative 6-3 majority. In a ruling released Thursday, the court gutted affirmative action programs aimed at giving minorities more opportunities to attend elite colleges and universities. Last year, the court overturned Roe v. Wade, rescinding a constitutional right to abortion that stood for a half century.
Former President Donald Trump cemented the court's conservative majority with his three appointments — a connection that Biden is certain to draw as the 2024 campaign unfolds, with a potential rematch against his 2020 opponent.
“This is not a normal court,” Biden told reporters after the court released its affirmative action ruling.