In the days and even weeks after President Joe Biden took the dramatic step to order the cancellation of student loan debt for up to 40 million Americans, it wasn’t clear that he’d ever focus publicly on the issue again.
Passing references deep into broad policy speeches were as much as Biden was willing to give the issue, a reflection of both the arduous and divided internal policy process – and caution inside the White House political team about the broader salience of the issue.
But that changed in a major way Friday when Biden traveled to Delaware State University for an event tied explicitly to his executive action, where he talked up the debt relief program, provided an update on sign-ups and called out 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 written me letters so far – literally,” Biden said from the podium in Dover.
Biden arrived at the school on Friday riding on the winds of two court victories over the legality of the move and a seamless launch of the debt relief application. In less than a week since the application launched, Biden said, close to 22 million people have filled out an application, with a vast majority of those applicants using their phones. But just hours after his remarks, a federal appeals court put a temporary, administrative hold on the program, barring the administration from canceling loans covered under the policy while the court considers a legal challenge mounted by six Republican-led states.
Embedded in the decision to try and thrust the issue to center stage is what White House officials have seen in polling about its effect on youth voters and engagement – particularly young Black voters, several sources say. While officials expected some impact, the scale caught some by surprise and helped push the issue further to the front-burner inside the West Wing.
And though much of the President’s speech was focused on student loans, the President also broadly credited young people for electing him to office and highlighted other policy wins, like marijuana reforms and infrastructure funding.
The President, who delivered the remarks in his home state less than three weeks before the midterm elections, zeroed-in on the Republican critics of his debt relief plan.
“Let’s talk about who is against helping millions of you who need the help,” Biden said to the students at the university, where 75% of students are recipients of Pell grants. “Republican governors wrote me a letter saying this relief only helps ‘the elite few.’ Y’all know you’re the elite few? I knew you were really special, but no, you’re the elite few.”
“Who in the hell do they think they are?” he later added.
The primary attack on the loan actions has been its cost, which estimates have pegged at hundreds of billions of dollars over the course of 10 years. That’s why, just a few hours before his visit to Delaware State, Biden used the Treasury Department’s annual budget results for the most recent fiscal year to tout numbers that will show a fairly dramatic topline decrease in the annual deficit. To be clear, it’s tied primarily to the end of the most significant pandemic-era emergency programs. But the dry numbers release creates a perfect moment for Biden to pre-but the attacks coming later in the day.
In his student debt relief remarks, the President once again highlighted the reduction in the deficit, arguing that “despite what Republican officials say, we can afford student relief.”
Biden’s remarks came a day after federal courts stymied two attempts to block the program. Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett rejected a challenge to the program by a Wisconsin taxpayers’ group and federal district court Judge Henry Autrey dismissed a lawsuit brought forward by six Republican-led states.
Biden on Friday referenced the court decisions, saying Republicans have “been fighting this in the courts, but just yesterday, a state court and the Supreme Court said, ‘No, we’re on Biden’s side.’”
But after Biden’s remarks wrapped, the 8th US Circuit Court of Appeals issued the temporary hold in the case brought by GOP-led states. These states had asked the court to act before Sunday, the earliest date the Biden administration had said it would grant student loan discharges.
Now, with the court’s temporary hold in place on the program, the Biden administration has until Monday to respond to that request, and the states will have until Tuesday to reply to that response.
This story has been updated with additional developments on Friday.
CNN’s Katie Lobosco and Tierney Sneed contributed to this report.