President Joe Biden did not plan to take questions Thursday. His helicopter was waiting outside on the South Lawn of the White House.
But after a 10-minute statement on the Supreme Court’s affirmative action ruling, a CNN reporter asked, “Is this a rogue court? The president stopped short.
Pausing to think for a moment, he looked over his shoulder. “This is not a normal court,” he said before leaving.
This week’s monumental decisions — reversing affirmative action in college admissions and unraveling Biden’s student debt relief plan among them — are serious setbacks for a president who has pledged as a candidate to advance racial equity and erase student debt.
They are also an urgent reminder to Democrats of the lasting consequences of the election at a time when Biden advisers are looking for ways to inject enthusiasm into his bid for another term.
The impact this will have on the next elections remains unknown. But Biden and his team have already begun blaming Republicans for dismantling programs that have benefited young, college-educated and minority voters — all core elements of Biden’s Democratic coalition will need to step up if he hopes to be re-elected.
The fact that three justices from the court’s conservative majority have been nominated by President Donald Trump – both Biden’s predecessor and, according to polls, his most likely challenger next year – gives even more impetus to Biden to use the rulings as a political cudgel during his campaign. warms up.
“The excesses of the Supreme Court will backfire on us,” said Rep. Ritchie Torres, a Democrat from New York. “You know, the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v Wade has reduced what was supposed to be a red tide in the 2022 election cycle to nothing more than a red streak. So not only is the Supreme Court’s decision bad law, it’s also bad policy and it’s going to come back to haunt the Republican Party.
Speaking to a group of Democratic donors in New York on Thursday night, Biden sought to highlight the stakes of the court’s new supermajority, a preview of how he will frame the issue over the coming year.
“The Supreme Court is not only becoming conservative, but almost – it’s like a step back. It’s like a throwback, some of the decisions they make,” Biden told donors in a private dining room inside the Seagram Building. “Did you ever think that we would be able, after 50 years of recognizing the right to privacy in the Constitution, to suggest that the right to privacy does not exist?”
Despite his criticism of the court, Biden rejected some liberal suggestions on panel reform. He opposes increasing the number of judges who sit on the court and has not adopted term limits.
“If we start the process of trying to expand the court, we’re going to politicize it, maybe forever, in a way that’s not healthy,” Biden said in a friendly interview on MSNBC shortly. after Thursday’s decision on affirmative action.
Administration seeks plan B on student loans
Biden’s student loan plan, which emerged last year after months of agonizing internal debate over its costs and eligibility criteria, aimed to free low- and middle-income Americans from crippling debt.
Throughout the process, Biden has expressed concern about being seen as handing out a handout to the wealthy. Eventually, pressure to fulfill one of his key campaign promises led to the plan to forgive up to $20,000 in student loan debt for some borrowers.
For months, the White House has publicly stated that there is no other plan if the Supreme Court strikes down the student debt relief program. But behind the scenes, senior White House officials worked for several weeks to execute a simple directive from the president to “be ready in case the Supreme Court doesn’t do the right thing,” officials said. the White House.
The president’s charge to his team was described as follows: “If the court has ruled against the program, find other ways to provide as much relief as possible to working-class and middle-class borrowers, taking into account of all legal issues.
Over the past few weeks, White House Chief of Staff Jeff Zients has brought his team together for weekly meetings to work out all the scenarios for the Supreme Court’s decision and explore all the legal avenues at their disposal. disposal after the president told his team to build a “fully developed response”. to all possible decisions, officials said.
Zient’s office — led by Deputy Chief of Staff Natalie Quillian, the Domestic Policy Council, the National Economic Council and the Office of the White House Legal Counsel — worked with the Department of Education and the Ministry of Justice to offer options that the administration could take if the decision was not in their favor.
“All of these meetings were structured around one question – how would we be able to provide relief to as many borrowers as possible, as quickly as possible, regardless of the possible Supreme Court outcome,” an official said.
The White House also stayed in touch with debt relief advocacy groups and congressional allies throughout the process and offered suggestions for next steps. Lawyers from the White House, the Department of Justice and the Department of Education reviewed all the recommendations, including the administrative measures and legal authorities available to the administration, and ultimately developed responses for several scenarios.
Inside the White House, some officials had hoped the court would uphold Biden’s student debt program, pointing to some surprising rulings in recent weeks that have seen some conservative justices join liberals on voting rights issues. and redistricting of Congress.
But even Biden acknowledged after court arguments in February that he was not sure the decision would go his way.
“I’m confident we’re on the right side of the law,” Biden told CNN in March when asked if he was confident the administration would prevail in the case. “I’m not sure of the outcome of the decision yet.”
His instinct was correct. The President was in the Oval Office Friday morning when he was briefed on the Supreme Court’s decision by his top aides, then engaged in meetings that stretched into the afternoon to refine their response after that the decision was not in their favour.
In the end, the president instructed his team to move forward with a new plan, which includes pursuing a new path for debt relief by authorities in the Education Act. higher of 1965, which was promoted by some debt relief advocacy groups and progressive legislators, as well as the creation of a temporary 12-month “gradual repayment” program for federal student loan borrowers when payments will resume in October.
A day earlier, Biden was watching the news on television when the affirmative action ruling was issued by the court, an official said. A team from the White House Counsel’s Office came to inform him of the decision.
“In our conversations with the White House about why student debt cancellation was necessary, it’s about closing the racial wealth gap,” said Wisdom Cole, National Director of the Youth & College Division. of the NAACP. “If the administration is committed to diversity, equity and inclusion, it must use all the tools in its toolbox. Every legal authority to make sure we see relief happening.
Demonstrating the urgency to respond to the court’s actions was a key goal as the White House prepared for both rulings, according to people familiar with the matter.
Above the preparations was the impression left after last year’s Supreme Court term that the Biden administration was unprepared for the ruling overturning the nation’s abortion rights, despite a leaked notice from the court months in advance indicating that the judges were ready to overturn Roe v. Wade.
The White House strongly denied being caught off guard on abortion and pointed to steps taken in the months following the decision to expand access, including medical abortion.
The issue proved galvanizing for Democratic voters in November’s midterm elections and propelled Democratic victories even in traditionally Republican ridings.
Whether the court’s ruling on student debt relief and affirmative action can have a similar effect will prove critical in the coming year as Biden struggles to win over voters that he always fights to keep his promises. Initial reaction from progressive Democrats was positive.
“It was not a foregone conclusion that the President would act so quickly today. But he announced an alternative path to canceling student debt using his higher education law authority given by Congress — and that deserves praise,” said Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Institute.
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