Yesterday, while taking questions from redditors and dodging nuts from the Republican National Convention, Barack Obama got a student debt question. Not just a student debt question, but specifically a law school student debt question. He got the question about one of the most important economic issues plaguing the very young people Obama was on Reddit to impress.
And he answered it.
He answered it in an annoying, vapid way that was replete with platitudes, yet devoid of any deep engagement with the issue. He got the question. And he answered it. But he said nothing at all.
The President offered some remarks about general indebtedness and waxed poetic about his commitment to education, but even Obama’s in-the-trenches appeal to young voters was blind to one of the biggest issues facing them.
Maybe if somebody Tweeted @BarackObama “discharge ed debt thru bk pls thx,” Obama could find a way to give 140 characters worth of a crap….
Here was the question:
I am recent law school graduate. Despite graduating from a top school, I find myself unemployed with a large student loan debt burden. While I’m sure my immediate prospects will improve in time, it’s difficult to be optimistic about the future knowing that my ability to live a productive life — to have a fulfilling career, to buy a house, to someday raise a family — is hampered by my debt and the bleak economic outlook for young people. I know that I’m not alone in feeling this way. Many of us are demoralized. Your 2008 campaign was successful in large part due to the efforts of younger demographics. We worked for you, we campaigned for you, and we turned out in record numbers to vote for you. What can I say to encourage those in similar situations as I am to show up again in November? What hope can you offer us for your second term?
Here was the President’s response:
I understand how tough it is out there for recent grads. You’re right – your long term prospects are great, but that doesn’t help in the short term. Obviously some of the steps we have taken already help young people at the start of their careers. Because of the health care bill, you can stay on your parent’s plan until you’re twenty six. Because of our student loan bill, we are lowering the debt burdens that young people have to carry. But the key for your future, and all our futures, is an economy that is growing and creating solid middle class jobs – and that’s why the choice in this election is so important. The other party has two ideas for growth – more taxs cuts for the wealthy (paid for by raising tax burdens on the middle class and gutting investments like education) and getting rid of regulations we’ve put in place to control the excesses on wall street and help consumers. These ideas have been tried, they didn’t work, and will make the economy worse. I want to keep promoting advanced manufacturing that will bring jobs back to America, promote all-American energy sources (including wind and solar), keep investing in education and make college more affordable, rebuild our infrastructure, invest in science, and reduce our deficit in a balanced way with prudent spending cuts and higher taxes on folks making more than $250,000/year. I don’t promise that this will solve all our immediate economic challenges, but my plans will lay the foundation for long term growth for your generation, and for generations to follow. So don’t be discouraged – we didn’t get into this fix overnight, and we won’t get out overnight, but we are making progress and with your help will make more.
I don’t want to say that the president didn’t understand the question, but he certainly didn’t answer it. Here are some particular problems with the President’s answer:
- When he says, “Because of our student loan bill, we are lowering the debt burdens that young people have to carry,” I don’t know what he’s talking about. Stafford loans? Yeah, those aren’t available to law students.
- Infrastructure and green jobs? Advanced manufacturing? Again, Mr. President, the kid wasn’t talking about work for people who have been to community college. If anything he’s talking about the flight of white-collar jobs overseas.
- “Folks making more than $250,000/year”? The guy who went to law school is hoping to be one of the people making more than $250K one day. Do taxes help the cost of law school come down? Or is the plan to do something stupid like putting even more money into federal loans so universities can jack up tuition prices to new heights?
- And of course POTUS gave us the obligatory “keep investing in education and make college more affordable.” This is starting to become the dumbest thing politicians say about education. You are not keeping college affordable for young people just by hooking them up to the drug that is the student loan industry. Screaming “NO MONEY DOWN” at people doesn’t mean things are affordable.
It would have been better if Obama had just said, “I feel your pain,” and moved on to another question. In fact, that’s what Obama should have said, because Obama is one of the people out there that knows or should know exactly what this person was talking about. He’s been in debt — law school debt. He and his wife. He could only go off and do his low-paying “community organizing” gig because Michelle Obama put in the hard work of going to Sidley and paying some freaking bills.
Obama would probably still be in debt NOW if he hadn’t written two best sellers. Was that his back up answer to this law student? “I know you are struggling right now. Why don’t you quit whining about it and write a best selling book about your life that catapults you to national prominence and pays off all you debts in the bargain? Slacker.”
I can only assume that Obama’s own experience has blinded him to the reality law and other graduates students are facing with their debts. While other people had to take jobs — terrible, hard jobs that they didn’t even really want — to pay off their debts, Obama went off to work with the community. While other people worried about owning homes and even producing children while under the cloud of huge debts, Obama just pumped out a book that handled all his bills. Maybe this president can’t even see the reality facing current law school grads because he was able to make good on the investment in legal education so easily. (And, no, I don’t think the other guy running for president is going to be any more helpful for people struggling with debts. Romney would have told the kid, “Why don’t you and your friends get together and package all of your debts and see if you can sell it to a muppet? Great! Next question.”)
Obama has covered a lot of political ground with his capacity for empathy, but he shows none when it comes to student debts. He doesn’t have any serious policy ideas, he can’t even engage with a question about the issue, and he seems completely unaware that the cost of higher education has skyrocketed since he went to school. He makes his stand at the altar of getting loan money into the hands of students, and then looks the other way while colleges and universities gouge those students (and ultimately the federal government) for all they’re worth.
When this student loan bubble bursts (and it will burst), Obama will have to own the fact that he stood by and answered questions on Reddit while the student loan industry burned.