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Americans Like Biden’s Student Debt Forgiveness Plan. The Supreme Court … Not So Much.

Welcome to Pollapalooza, our weekly polling roundup.

During oral arguments this week, the U.S. Supreme Court’s conservative majority cast a skeptical eye on President Biden’s plan to forgive — or at least reduce — more than 40 million people’s student debt, likely imperiling one of the Democrat’s signature policy initiatives. Among the sticking points for the conservative judges, so far, is that Biden lacks the congressional authority needed to provide over $400 billion in student loan forgiveness — a move justified as a response to the COVID-19 pandemic. “We take very seriously the idea of separation of powers and that power should be divided to prevent its abuse,” said Chief Justice John Roberts. “This is a case that presents extraordinarily serious, important issues about the role of Congress and about the role that we should exercise in scrutinizing that.”

Biden’s student debt plan has plenty of defenders outside the Supreme Court, though. In the lead-up to Tuesday’s hearing, a bevy of interest groups and borrowers who would be affected by the decision penned op-eds or took to the streets in an attempt to plead with the court against overturning Biden’s decree. And polls, too, suggest that the public is broadly in favor of student debt-relief programs — at least to some extent.

According to a February Beacon Research/Shaw & Company Research for Fox News poll, conducted just before the oral arguments took place, a majority of respondents (62 percent) said that at least some student debt should be forgiven — though they didn’t agree on just how much forgiveness was appropriate. Of that total number, 25 percent said that all college loan debt should be forgiven, while a larger percentage (37 percent) said that only amounts of up to $20,000 — which is double the amount of Biden’s plan for most borrowers — should be forgiven for people making up to $125,000 annually. Thirty-six percent of respondents, meanwhile, said no loan debt amount should be forgiven.

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Other polls have similarly shown broad support for Biden’s plan. A YouGov/Economist survey conducted from Feb. 20-21 found that 53 percent of U.S. adults either “strongly” or “somewhat” supported the federal government canceling up to $10,000 in student loans for people who earn less than $125,000 a year. In the same poll, 44 percent of respondents said that the federal government has at least some responsibility to address student loan debt, while 40 percent said that it doesn’t. 

It does look like Biden found a sweet spot in terms of just how much debt to forgive. Most polls I looked at for this story found support for the $10,000 forgiveness he’s proposing for non-Pell Grant recipients, although it wasn’t overwhelming. In that February YouGov/Economist survey, about half (51 percent) of respondents said that amount of debt forgiveness was “too little” (28 percent) or “about right” (23 percent), while one-third (32 percent) of respondents said that $10,000 was “too much.” That roughly 50 percent threshold has held steady over the past few months, too. Back in August, when Biden first announced the initiative, two polls — one from Quinnipiac University and the other from YouGov/The Economist — put support among registered voters for it at 51 percent and 52 percent, respectively.

That support for Biden’s proposal makes sense considering the myriad benefits of canceling student debt. To be sure, there are some well-documented fears among Americans that slashing student debt would worsen inflation and/or that it doesn’t address just how expensive colleges have become. Still, some estimates predict that relieving student debt could add up to 1.5 million jobs to the market and lift over 5 million Americans out of poverty — in addition to freeing many Americans of the debt trap that appears to be contributing to a lagging housing market and widening racial wealth gap. Other research suggests that those saddled with student loan debt might be more likely to get married or have children if their dues were forgiven.

That said, there’s a clear race and age gap when it comes to support for loan forgiveness. Support among Black (72 percent) and Hispanic (58 percent) adults was substantially stronger than it was among white respondents (47 percent), per the February YouGov/The Economist poll, which makes sense considering Black people often start out with more student debt than their white counterparts and also pay it down more slowly. Voters younger than 45 (36 percent for ages 18-29 and 37 percent for ages 30-44) gave the plan decent support, too, which also isn’t a huge surprise since younger Americans are similarly disproportionately likely to hold student debt.

A December Morning Consult/Politico survey yielded similar results. Though it didn’t ask about a specific dollar amount, pollsters found that 41 percent of Black registered voters and 30 percent of Hispanic ones — compared with 20 percent of white respondents — said that it should be a priority for Congress to pass a bill providing student loan relief to Americans. There was an age divide here, too: A plurality of surveyed voters younger than 45 (36 percent for ages 18-34 and 28 percent for ages 35-44) agreed that it should be a “top” priority.

But — like the courts — some surveys suggest that voters are split on whether Biden’s executive order exceeded his presidential powers. The February Fox News poll found that 44 percent of respondents said that he acted within his authority, while 49 percent said that he overstepped his boundaries.

Of course, these numbers aren’t likely to mean much to the Supreme Court’s conservative justices. Some polls, too, suggest that the public isn’t expecting the court to side with Biden, either. Like other pending cases before the high court these days, this is an inherently political fight because the court itself is political, but the justices are the ones who hold the power.

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Other polling bites

  • Given the current economic outlook, a number of companies are conducting layoffs or announcing plans to do so. Recent polling by Morning Consult, however, shows that many Americans don’t believe that these layoffs needed to take place. Per their survey, 50 percent of U.S. adults said that, based on the current economic environment, recent mass layoffs were either “totally” or “somewhat” avoidable. Just over one-third of all respondents (35 percent) felt that the layoffs were at least partially unavoidable. Generally, younger Americans were the least likely to buy into the notion that layoffs were inevitable: Sixty percent of Gen-Z adults said that these moves were unnecessary compared with 52 percent of Millennials and 49 percent of Gen-Xers. While the survey didn’t dig into why there’s a persistent age gap, previous reporting on the topic suggests that it could be because younger people have likely never experienced a stagnant stock market in the same way older generations have.
  • Various reports claim that Biden will announce whether he’ll seek reelection within the next few months. As he deliberates his next move, though, polls show that he has increased support from inside of his own party, with 71 percent of Democratic voters saying they want him to continue to be their standard-bearer, according to an Emerson College Polling report released earlier this week, while 29 percent said it should be someone else. The numbers are a marked increase from when Emerson asked Democratic primary or caucus voters the same question in January. In that survey, just 58 percent of the party’s voters said they wanted Biden to seek a second term, while 42 percent said that another candidate should run instead.
  • Then there’s the GOP ticket. Of course, reader, you’re probably well aware by now that former President Donald Trump is seeking another term. But as the Republican primary field takes shape, all eyes have been on Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has yet to announce a presidential campaign but has still emerged as a frontrunner to challenge Trump for the nomination. As my colleague Nathaniel Rakich has written, DeSantis tends to poll well against Trump if they’re going head-to-head, but a recent Yahoo News/YouGov poll suggests that the Florida governor’s support among GOP voters might be waning. Per the survey, Trump now leads DeSantis by eight points (47 percent to 39 percent), despite trailing behind the Florida governor by four percentage points (45 percent to 41 percent) in a previous Yahoo News/YouGov poll. Trump also led (43 percent) in a hypothetical three-way race between himself, DeSantis (31 percent) and former South Carolina governor and U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley (8 percent). Haley announced her bid for the Republican nomination in February.
  • Voters have become increasingly wary of moves to ban critical race theory and other discussions of race in schools as a number of state legislatures deliberate doing so — again. According to a Data for Progress poll, an overwhelming majority of respondents said that racism, slavery and the Black Lives Matter movement, among other things, should continue being taught in K-12 schools. Among likely voters, 83 percent said that slavery should be discussed “in an age-appropriate manner,” compared with 11 percent of respondents who said it shouldn’t be taught at all. Teaching about the American history of racism and racial equality, meanwhile, had similarly high support (79 percent) among those surveyed — as did discussions of modern-day racism and racial equality (69 percent) and social and political activism (66 percent).
  • Meanwhile, at the congressional level, some Republicans have threatened to vote against raising the debt ceiling unless Biden agrees to significant cuts in federal spending. In response, Biden has warned that Obamacare and Medicaid could be on the chopping block — but that’s something voters are largely opposed to, according to recent survey data. Another Data for Progress poll conducted from Feb. 23-27 found that voters are mostly in favor of social safety net programs, with 69 percent and 47 percent of likely voters, respectively, saying that Congress should increase funding for Social Security and Medicaid. On Medicaid specifically, respondents also overwhelmingly rejected certain changes to the program, like charging monthly premiums to Medicaid recipients, turning Medicaid into a block grant and ending the Medicaid expansion from the Affordable Care Act.

Biden approval

A graph of Joe Biden's approval rating

According to FiveThirtyEight’s presidential approval tracker,1 43.2 percent of Americans approve of the job Biden is doing as president, while 52.0 percent disapprove (a net approval rating of -8.8 points). At this time last week, 43.2 percent approved and 51.7 percent disapproved (a net approval rating of -8.5 points). One month ago, Biden had an approval rating of 41.9 percent and a disapproval rating of 52.9 percent, for a net approval rating of -11.0 points.


  1. As of 5 p.m. ET on Thursday.

Alex Samuels was a politics reporter at FiveThirtyEight.


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