Republicans would rather have an argument about how to expand “opportunity” than over how to combat “inequality.” So the White House is hoping to seize the “opportunity” debate — on its own terms.
For some time groups on the left have been pushing Democrats and the White House to pick a fight with Republicans over student loans, whose interest rates are set to double when a federal law expires this summer. The White House signaled Friday that it is set to join the battle.
“If Congress fails to act, the interest rate on the loans, which are taken out by nearly eight million students each year, will double on July 1, to 6.8 percent,” The New York Times reported. “White House officials said the president was planning a sustained effort through the spring,” citing his Saturday radio address and appearances scheduled at colleges this week.
Republicans have argued that extending the law would heap great costs on taxpayers. Democrats say that the cost of a one-year extension, $6 billion, is only marginally more than the amount of annual tax revenue the “Buffett rule” on millionaires would have brought in — a sum Republicans derided as laughably trivial.
The left has an infrastructure primed for this fight. The group CREDO Action has been organizing on the issue and urging Democrats to take it on; it has collected 230,000 signatures.
But CREDO may not be satisfied if the administration pushes for only a one-year extension of the low interest rates. The group e-mailed supporters, asking them to pressure Democrats in Congress not to compromise on any one-year measure (presuming Republicans are even willing to do that).
The battle over student loans would serve a good political purpose for Democrats: It feeds into the argument between the two parties over how best to create opportunity, a dispute that is central to the presidential race. Republicans, including Mitt Romney (who announced support for the extension Monday), have argued that President Barack Obama’s call for action to combat inequality is class warfare. They insist the best course of action is to sweep away government, unshackle the private sector and allow it to create opportunity for everyone.
Obama and Democrats counter that government action is necessary to increase social mobility and, with it, shared prosperity — via funding education, for instance.
The battle over extending student loans takes this argument out of the realm of the abstract. It places the debate over whether government should act to facilitate opportunity before voters in concrete terms.
Greg Sargent blogs on domestic politics for The Washington Post: washingtonpost.com/blogs/plum-line.