Biden tests 2012 education pitch

Neil Munro White House Correspondent
Font Size:

Top White House officials are trying to transmute three disastrous, government-created crises into an education platform for President Barack Obama’s reelection campaign.

Vice-President Joe Biden tested the formula at a Florida high school, where he told parents and students that Obama is considering “tough and draconian” fixes to rising college costs, one of which could be the denial of federal education loans to some colleges.

“We believe we can cut costs and limit student debt without in any way compromising the quality of education,” Biden told a room of students and parents at Fletcher High School in Neptune Beach, Florida. “You’ll hear a lot more about this as time goes on,” he said during the hourlong event on Dec. 8.

Biden’s audience was made up of the parents and students who are facing three crises created by government: The federally-fueled rise in college costs, the federally-initiated real estate bubble that devastated parents’ wealth in 2007, and the federal pressures that make college degrees the primary tickets to middle class social status.

Each crisis makes a college degree harder to win — or more painful to forego — and all are the crises are caused by policies favored by Biden and other Democrats.

Yet Biden repeatedly portrayed Obama and himself, plus their wives, as the solution to the three crises. “Barack, Michelle, Jill [Biden] and I, we don’t forget, it’s not just about you guys, it’s about your parents,” he told the students.

Biden’s speech also promoted the administration during the 2012 race while demoting Republicans. “Lots of people … really don’t think public education is the key… [GOP politicians] want to cut it by a third,” he said.

The rising costs of college are “crushing hundreds of thousands of parents and making them wonder, ‘Is a college worth it?’” Biden said.

College costs have inflated for more than 20 years, partly because the federal government provides a plethora of grants and loans that allow most parents and students to pay the higher fees, but don’t actually reduce the total costs.

Biden referenced this problem when he said the federal government gives out $70 billion in loans each year, and “that federal assistance is going right to that college.”

Yet Biden spent several minutes listing several new subsidies that the Obama administration has added. These include $3 billion in new Pell grants each year, easier loan payment rules, new government loans to students, and income tax deductions worth up to $2,500 per year.

None of these economic redistribution programs, however, actually reduce the real cost of education. Instead, they shift costs from each family’s college bills to all families’ tax bills, and they convert parents’ expenses into graduates’ debts.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan attended the event with Biden, and said officials were considering ways to spur competition. “That’s what we’re picking through together. … We have to give [colleges] the opportunity, the right incentive structure,” he said.

But the federal government has also done little to spur cost-cutting competition, partly because each university has strong supporters in Congress. Moreover, the Obama administration is curbing competition by tightly regulating for-profit colleges, and even limiting their access to federal subsidies.

Duncan didn’t promise any federal rules to spur competition. “Costs are going very, very high … [but] people will vote with their feet” by choosing cheaper colleges, he said.

Biden also commiserated with the parents about the recession’s impact on parents’ ability to pay college costs. “Because of the [George W.] Bush recession — the recession we inherited — that has gone up in flames,” Biden declared.

Americans’ wealth has dropped by $16 trillion because of the recession, Biden told the parents and students.

Yet the recession was, in large part, created by the bursting of the real estate bubble, which was inflated by federal policies that were established by President Bill Clinton, embraced by Bush and are being continued by Obama and Biden.

Those policies overheated the housing market by prodding banks to increase mortgage-lending to poor people, including blacks, Hispanics and new immigrants. The increased housing-buying inflated housing prices, which collapsed once the buying ended in 2007, destroying trillions of dollars of real estate equity and Wall Street wealth.

Obama’s deputies are continuing the same real estate policies. For example, Thomas Perez, the Department of Justice’s civil regulation chief, told a convention of real estate professionals in Baltimore on Nov. 7 that “our approach is similar to actions taken in both the Bush and Clinton administrations.”

At the school, Biden also stressed the value of college degrees to a person’s social status, regardless of whether the degree makes the person wiser, wealthier or more productive.

A college degree “is about dignity, a sense of yourself, this notion of self worth, your standing in the community … it’s about becoming a better man and better woman,” Biden said. It’s about a person’s “social acceptability … the sense of your self worth and accomplishment. … Folks, it unlocks the mind and it serves as a tool to increasing civilization and progress.”

“A college education is almost a prerequisite to the middle class,” he said.

But this inflation of college degrees’ importance makes the lack of a college degree very painful for people, whether skilled or not.

This social value of a degree is boosted by federal policies which have steadily diminished the value of rival paths to social success, including vocational skills, manual labor, parenting and entrepreneurship.

For example, large-scale immigration of unskilled labor has sharply reduced the pay and status of manual labor. Also, university-credentialed feminists since the 1970s have decried full-time parenting as demeaning.

Similarly, a Supreme Court’s 1971 decision, Griggs v. Duke Power, exposed companies to new hiring-related discrimination lawsuits, and prompted them to use university credentials as the initial qualification of prospective employees. This change sidelined older practices of skill-testing and on-the-job training, hindering employment opportunities for people who don’t want to go to college.

“A lot of people don’t want to go to college … [but] the other avenues are more and more limited than the best avenue” of a college degree, Biden said at the event, shortly after he boasted of his own children’s credentials from prestigious universities, including Yale, Pennsylvania, Tulane and Syracuse.

Three of his children accumulated $274,000 in college debt, he added.

Biden’s campaign trail experiment was made clear on several occasions during his speech when he tested his caricature of Republicans’ education policies as greedy cost cutting. “The guys on the other side are very mad at us,” he told the crowd. “They’re telling us, ‘You’re giving away money … [but] they don’t have any trouble giving away money to some people if they’re wealthy enough,”

“There is no higher priority in our administration” than education, he declared, producing applause.

“You are the finest generation this country has ever seen,” he told the voting-age crowd from the platform. “Shame on us — shame on us — if we don’t mine your potential.”

Follow Neil on Twitter