Former Vice President Joe Biden is pivoting to the left as he begins his general election campaign against President Donald Trump, promising to eliminate student debt for a huge portion of people making under $125,000 a year and lowering the Medicare eligibility age from 65 to 60.
Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee, announced both policy proposals in a Medium blog post on Thursday afternoon, arguing the economic downturn caused by the coronavirus epidemic made both moves necessary. But both shifts ― especially on student debt ― are designed to appeal to younger and left-leaning voters who were skeptical of his candidacy and instead supported Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) in the primary. Sanders ended his candidacy yesterday.
“Recovery will require long term changes to build a more inclusive and more resilient middle class, and a greener and more resilient economy,” Biden wrote. “We have to think big — as big as the challenges we face. As we start to lay the groundwork for recovery, we have to build back better for the future.”
Biden’s campaign emphasized that both proposals fit within his long-standing goal to rebuild the American middle class, though it also acknowledged Sanders’ influence.
“Senator Sanders and his supporters can take pride in their work in laying the groundwork for these ideas, and I’m proud to adopt them as part of my campaign at this critical moment in responding to the coronavirus crisis,” Biden wrote.
As a political calculation, it shows Biden’s campaign is confident about their standing with many suburban moderates who were swing voters in the past but have moved solidly into the Democratic Party during Trump’s presidency, offended by his bullying demeanor and chaotic style. Many of these voters flocked to the polls in the final weeks of the Democratic primary, padding Biden’s margins of victory over Sanders.
Instead, the Biden campaign is ― at least for the time being ― trying to improve its standing with younger voters, many of whom lean to the ideological left. Polling throughout the Democratic primary showed Sanders triumphing with young voters by massive margins, and early polling in the general election has shown Biden running weaker with younger voters than past Democratic nominees.
Lowering the eligibility age for Medicare traditionally performs well in public opinion surveys, while the popularity of proposals to eliminate student debt often depends on the details of the proposal and how the question is phrased.
Progressives and Democratic operatives focused on youth turnout have argued that Biden — who often criticized progressive priorities like single-payer health care during his primary run — would need to move on policy in order to win over voters who are skeptical of him. Sanders himself made a similar pronouncement during an appearance on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” on Wednesday night.
“I hope to be able to work with Joe in a more progressive direction. Joe is a good politician and he understands that in order to defeat Trump, he’s going to have to bring new people into his political world, working people, young people,” Sanders said.
He said he thought Biden was prepared to move in a progressive direction on a number of issues, including immigration, criminal justice reform and the cost of higher education. (Sanders notably did not mention health care.)
“Joe is not going to adopt my platform,” Sanders acknowledged. “But I think if he’ll move in this direction, people will say, ‘This is a guy that we should support.’”
A Sanders campaign aide, granted anonymity to discuss sensitive talks, said the conversation between Sanders and Biden’s senior staffers was ongoing.
“We understand that the Biden campaign is going through a process of trying to convince progressives that he stands with him … but it’s safe to say he wouldn’t be making these overtures without Bernie pushing,” the Sanders aide said. “This is the beginning of the process, not the end of the process.”
The Sanders campaign warned not to expect an imminent endorsement of Biden.
Biden, who based his successful bid for the Democratic nomination on the importance of defeating Trump and returning to normalcy, had long resisted calls to eliminate student debt. He inched toward the position last month, adopting a proposal from Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) to forgive $10,000 worth of student debt per person as a part of immediate response to the coronavirus pandemic.
His new position ― totally eliminating student debt for those making under $125,000 a year who attended either a public college or a historically Black college ― goes further while still falling short of Sanders’ proposal to eliminate all student debt, or Warren’s proposal to eliminate it for 95% of borrowers. Biden would also phase out the benefit, to avoid a “cliff” for those who make above $125,000.
The number of people whose debt would be forgiven by Biden’s plan is unclear, as is its total cost. But he proposes paying for the plan by eliminating a business losses tax cut included in the coronavirus stimulus package that Congress passed last month. That $170 billion cut was seen as a GOP giveaway to real estate investors.
Biden is also proposing expanding the federal health care program for seniors by lowering the Medicare age from 65 to 60, who would pay the same rate as any other Medicare beneficiaries. The proposal is notably different than some Medicare “buy-in” proposals widely endorsed by congressional Democrats, which usually have higher premiums for those under the age of 65 looking to join the Medicare system.
Democrats have long advocated for lowering the age for Medicare as many older Americans, at higher risk of health problems, struggle to gain secure employment, and face high average premium costs on the federal health insurance exchange.
Lowering the age for Medicare is a popular proposal across party lines. According to a January 2019 poll from the Kaiser Family Foundation, 77% of Americans supported allowing individuals between the ages of 50 and 65 to buy coverage through the program, including 69% of Republicans.
Biden’s current health care platform expands the Affordable Care Act by creating a public option like Medicare that is open to all Americans, in addition to expanding the tax credits available for people on the exchanges. His plan would not reach universal coverage outright, but would get the country a lot closer to it.
While Biden credited the Sanders campaign in part for inspiring these changes to his campaign platform, they are a far cry from what the Vermont senator proposed on the campaign trail. Sanders endorsed a “Medicare For All” system that would move every American on to a single government-run health insurance program.
In March, Biden claimed to have adopted a Sanders proposal on tuition-free college for some in the run up to the final Democratic presidential debate, endorsing the compromise platform between Sanders and former Secretary of State Hilary Clinton from 2016 that would make public colleges and universities tuition-free for those from families with incomes under $125,000. Sanders said it was not enough.
“It’s great that Joe Biden is now supporting a position that was in the Democratic platform four years ago,” Sanders responded in a statement in March. “Now we have to go much further. We need to make all public universities, colleges and trade schools tuition-free for everyone like our high schools are. We need to cancel all student debt. And we can fund it with a small tax on Wall Street speculation.”
The Sanders campaign said not to expect similar criticisms about the incremental nature of Biden’s new proposal.
“Like last time, this is a process that will take time,” the Sanders aide said, referring to the negotiations that led up to Sanders’ endorsement of Hillary Clinton in 2016. “The Biden campaign will put out what they are comfortable with.”