The case for no candidate like Biden ever again

The president’s track record of promoting corporate interests has contributed to the struggles of impoverished Americans.

U.S. President Joe Biden speaks about his plans for continued student debt relief after a U.S. Supreme Court decision blocking his plan to cancel $430 billion in student loan debt, in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, U.S. June 30, 2023. REUTERS/Leah Millis
US President Joe Biden speaks about his student debt relief efforts on June 30, 2023, after the Supreme Court blocked his plan to cancel $430bn in student loan debt [File: Leah Millis/Reuters]

The past three years of United States President Joe Biden’s administration have been perceived as an amazing success and dismal failure, depending on who you ask. Some see the successful rollout of COVID-19 vaccines, the economic recovery dubbed Bidenomics and the restoration of credibility to the executive branch as major accomplishments.

Others point to official rhetoric that downplays the devastating impact of COVID-19 subvariants and the end of pandemic mitigation measures and economic relief efforts, such as child allowances that helped reduce child poverty, as examples of the administration’s failure to confront immediate and long-term social and economic issues. Worse still, Biden’s declaration of unconditional support for Israel and his defence of its genocide along with the resurgence of naked white supremacy reflect the dominating atmosphere of Trumpism during his presidency.

In their decisions, Biden and his administration appear to be not all that dissimilar to their neoliberal and far-right predecessors spanning the past half-century from Richard Nixon to Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump.

No wonder many Americans lack enthusiasm for supporting a second Biden term. I am certainly among them. I will vote for Biden come November 5, but my vote will be with the sincere hope I will never have to cast another ballot for a politician who more than most has shaped the disastrous direction the federal government has taken over the past half-century.

As a registered Democrat since turning 18 in the late 1980s, I should be an avid supporter of the Democratic Party, Biden and his vice president, Kamala Harris. Thanks to them, all of my remaining student loan debt, which I began accumulating in 1987 as a college freshman and had been paying off since laying hands on my PhD diploma in 1997, no longer exists.

In August, I was one of 804,000 borrowers, whose student debt was erased as part of a student loan forgiveness initiative by the Department of Education. Debt worth tens of thousands of dollars – all compound interest on my original principal of $41,300 – was gone. As of December, the Biden administration has forgiven $132bn in loans for 3.6 million borrowers.

Admittedly, I was ecstatic. At first. Then I experienced a few days of sighs of relief, an occasional tear and, later, a bit of anger.

It was debt I had struggled to repay for decades and couldn’t discharge in a bankruptcy as a result of legislation that Biden, as a senator, had spent years lobbying for on behalf of banks and credit companies. When passed in 2005, the Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act closed the bankruptcy option for student loan borrowers.

It was debt I had accumulated while completing my three degrees because financial support through federal grants was limited. That was due to amendments to the Higher Education Act that Biden had also supported and that expanded student loans as the primary method to pay for tuition for first-generation students from families living in poverty.

While in college, I received the Pell Grant, a federal government subsidy for low-income students, which at that time was about $2,200 per year. It covered only about 17 percent of my total college expenses at the University of Pittsburgh and only about 29 percent of my out-of-state tuition. Even with me working all through my undergraduate years – including a year where I averaged 30 hours a week as a work-study student – I still had to take out $16,000 in student loans. That was just for my bachelor’s degree.

Today’s Pell Grants cover less than 30 percent of college expenses at public higher education institutions, leading to more borrowing and more risks and limitations for low-income students once they earn their degrees.

As of last fall, more than 43 million borrowers owed more than $1.75 trillion on student loans. Biden’s sponsorship of student loan programmes, his support for the slow rise of Pell Grant allotments lagging behind tuition increases and his standing against student loan borrowers seeking relief through bankruptcy have been part of efforts to defund need-based aid over four decades.

That the president is now trying to undo some of the damage to the lives of tens of millions of Americans in no way makes up for his role in creating this crisis in the first place. Nor should it mean that any borrower who has benefitted should automatically grant him their vote.

I think about what could have and should have been. Every decision I made in my education had to factor in how much more I would need to borrow to complete my degree. Every decision I came to had to account for this question: Can I afford to pay off these loans?

Decisions like whether I should continue to major in a practical field like computer science or switch to history, a subject I enjoyed and had an affinity for. Or whether I should take time off from school to work and figure out what I really wanted to do as a writer or just pass go and earn my master’s degree and doctorate while still in my mid-20s.

Or what jobs should I say yes or no to, especially with the conundrum of finding ethical work in social justice or in education versus work merely to pay my student loans and bills, eventual car notes and maybe a mortgage. Or whether I should stay in Pittsburgh with its low and stagnant wages but also low cost of living or move to the Washington, DC, area, one of the most expensive places to live in the US but with higher earning potential.

And whether and when to buy a house, rent a house or rent an apartment, when to have a kid, when to buy a car, whether and when to leave a job for something slightly better. These were among the many debt-ridden questions and decisions I have faced.

Despite my degrees and my middle-class-level income since 1999, I became overwhelmed and ended up declaring bankruptcy on my consumer loan debt in 2011. That still did not remove my obligation to pay my student loans, thanks again to Biden’s work on behalf of banking lobbyists in 2005.

Whether fully employed or underemployed, I kept paying or making arrangements to pay. For 25 years, I kept paying, from November 1997 until the student loan pause hit for me in July 2022, some $67,000 in payments in all. The pandemic pause for student loan payments enacted in 2020 did not initially apply to me because I had originally consolidated all of my student loans.

Being able to pay on my loans at a lower interest rate could have helped me save more money for my son to attend college. It could have been the down payment for a new home. But not having to borrow at all could have made the difference between having a successful writing career in my late 20s and 30s instead of my mid-40s and 50s.

Just on the issue of student loan debt alone, Biden’s body of work represents the past 50 years of economic stagnation and the rise of the super wealthy at the expense of the struggling American middle class and the expansion of poverty in the US.  With friends like Biden, a Democrat working hand-in-hand with Republicans to keep millions of people locked in debt for decades, who needs enemies?

Both parties cost me a decade to 15 years of lost income, lost sleep and lost opportunities for a quality of life I can now enjoy with nearly all of my youthful years behind me. I will only vote for Biden in November because the alternative is even worse. I will do so to buy time for a future without politicians like Biden compromising my life chances away.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.