The Biden White House announced this week that it would extend a pandemic-era moratorium on the repayment of student loans, but it is entirely unclear why. The maneuver undermines this administration’s claims that it has competently managed both the pandemic and the economy, and it is sure to aggravate partisans on both sides of the aisle. Most confoundingly, it provides assistance only to a small pool of voters while aggravating a far larger population.

The logic that justified the pause on student-loan repayments in the first place was that the artificial limits on economic activity imposed on the public by governments reduced the public’s earning power. Governments engineered that hardship, so governments needed to provide relief. Today, the pandemic and its mitigation measures have receded to the point that there are now too many open jobs for too few applicants. The White House is quick to tout the economy’s rebound from pandemic-era lows as a mark of its success. Extending the deferment of loan repayments undermines the White House’s claims of economic competency and preserves an unwarranted sense of crisis around the pandemic, neither of which advance the Democratic Party’s political goals. But you wouldn’t know that to hear the administration’s officials talk about the issue.

“Joe Biden, right now, is the only president in history where no one’s paid on their student loans for the entirety of his presidency,” White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain crowed in a recent appearance on a podcast hosted by former Obama administration staffers. He went on to float the prospect of full “student debt forgiveness,” despite the president’s repeated refusal to entertain such a policy.

But what choice did Klain have but to articulate something resembling a logical endpoint to the administration’s bewildering student-debt policies? At least forgiveness—while being unpalatable to much of the country, as evinced by the U.S. Senate’s failure to advance a House-passed plan to cancel up to $10,000 in student debt—has a constituency within the Democratic firmament.

Progressives have long demanded the retirement of up to $50,000 in student-loan debt per borrower, and they’re terribly confused by the administration’s refusal to make it happen. “With each and every repayment extension, you make a stronger case for canceling it,” NAACP’s Wisdom Cole told the New York Times. “At this point, just cancel it.” He has a point. The administration’s decision to extend the moratorium on payments into late August makes almost no political sense.

Of the approximately 45 million Americans who hold student-loan debt, about half of that debt is held by borrowers who attend graduate school. Not only do the vast majority of Americans not hold any student debt, but those who do disproportionately aspire to assume careers in the information economy. In other words, these are already core Democratic constituents. Breakdowns of partisan affiliation by education routinely show that advanced degree-holders are among the most likely to vote Democratic. The administration is pandering to a constituency that is already locked in. Meanwhile, the 80 percent or so of Americans who never borrowed for education or paid their loans off are left to wonder why the real financial hardships they are experiencing don’t rate in Washington.

The freeze on loan repayments will now have to be revisited before it expires again on August 31, amid what promises to be a white-hot midterm campaign season. The extension of this program has already handed Republican candidates an easy layup. They’re calling the administration’s policies an “insult to every American who responsibly paid debts” and an “outrageous” ploy to boost the president’s ailing poll numbers. If the administration extends the moratorium again in August, it will please no one. Republicans will stand by their attacks on the White House’s profligate pandering, and progressives will be irritated by the White House’s failure to pull the plug on these debts altogether.

The Biden administration might have thought it was splitting the baby with this decision, but no one is happy with a split baby. What’s more, this maladroit kowtowing has all the potential in the world to backfire on this White House. We even know what that would look like.

On the morning of February 19, 2009, the American political environment changed irrevocably. The unlikely event that produced a seismic shift and ushered in a new age of populist politics in the United States came in an unlikely form: one CNBC journalist’s exasperated rant.

During the deepening financial crisis caused by the collapse of the mortgage market, Rick Santelli exploded with indignation on the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange over the prospect that the Obama administration would bail out mortgage holders whose properties were suddenly underwater. Santelli raged against the idea that taxpayers would “subsidize the losers’ mortgages” to a chorus of support from the exchange floor. “President Obama, are you listening?” he asked. Santelli advocated throwing a Boston-style “tea party” to convey the righteous anger of those who played by rules that were now changing under their feet, and the country obliged. The political class’s decision even to entertain the prospect of such a naked revision of the American social compact catalyzed the creation of a force that remade the national political landscape.

Today, the Biden administration is courting the same political risks the Obama administration merely flirted with. The consequences could be similarly unknowable and far-reaching.

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