Adam McKay On The Midterms: Joe Biden’s Student Debt Forgiveness Was A “Game Changer”

One in a series of conversations with industry figures about the 2022 midterm elections. 

Writer-director Adam McKay has been no great fan of President Joe Biden. The Oscar-winning writer and director favored Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren in the last presidential election, and though he supported Biden in the general, he’s been skeptical that his presidency would mark real change from the flood of special interests and money in politics.

But in an interview, McKay said that Biden’s executive order to forgive student debt surprised him.

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“I felt that was big. I felt that was a game changer,” he said. “That is exactly what people have been begging for for years. Now, mixed with the horrors of Hobbs [the Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade] I think it changed the whole trajectory of the midterms.”

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He said that he now thinks that the Democrats have an outside chance of keeping their House majority and a better chance of retaining the Senate.

Shortly after Biden signed the Inflation Reduction Act, the health and climate bill that is a cornerstone of his agenda, McKay said that he was a bit lukewarm, as he believes it did not go far enough. While the bill included cost controls on the price of insulin for Medicare patients, it did not for the broader public, he noted.

McKay said the bill needed more elements that would have an immediate tangible impact on people’s lives. Student debt relief, he said, was the type of thing that will make such a difference. He said that if Democrats were able to try to take one more action, like raising the minimum wage, it would be a step that “that goes across red-blue lines.”

“I’m not doing backflips, but if [Democrats] could do one more thing. Maybe it is the child tax credit, or something that doesn’t look like it was written by billionaires and corporate interests. They could pull it off,” McKay said.

Democrats passed the Inflation Reduction Act via Senate reconciliation rules, which allow for certain budget items to pass with simple majority and avoid having the reach a 60-vote threshold to overcome a filibuster threat. Last year, the Senate parliamentarian rejected an effort to include a minimum-wage increase in the coronavirus relief package, but some lawmakers have pushed for pursuing a hike to $15 per hour via other means.

McKay also credited the White House for the way that it defended the student debt forgiveness order.

Under the plan, those with incomes up to $125,000 will qualify for $10,000 in debt relief. Those who have Pell Grants qualify for up to $20,000 in debt cancellation. Longtime backers of debt forgiveness, like Warren, argue that it will alleviate a crushing burden on former students now in the workforce, many of whom face decades of loan payoffs. She also noted on CNN that 40% of those who will qualify for loan forgiveness do not have college degrees.

When Biden announced the plan, it was immediately met with criticism from Republicans and some Democrats as an unfair giveaway to those who went to college versus those who did not. Jason Furman, chairman of the Council for Economic Advisers under President Barack Obama, called it “reckless” and argued that it would worsen inflation. The GOP is planning lawsuits to block the order.

“I thought it was really funny because you had Republican after Republican slamming it — and I would throw in corporate neoliberals — and then you look and check and every single one had [Paycheck Protection Program] loan forgiveness,” McKay said. The White House Twitter account noted lawmaker critics who had loans forgiven, including Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA).

“Loved it,” McKay said of the White House’s response. “That should be de rigueur. That’s just normal politics. That is just basic facts firing back on nonsense.”

McKay is on the board of RepresentUs, a group that has been working to curb the undue influence of money in politics and has been pushing for anti-corruption laws. He’s been critical of Biden and other Democrats who he says have been embraced by financial industry lobbyists during their careers, but called the president’s actions on student debt “kind of remarkable.”

“The idea that Joe Biden, of all people, is actually the one doing this, the fact that he is trying, blows me away,” McKay said. “I really didn’t think he had it in him.”

He added, “The lead story is, ‘Are we going to save democracy now?’ And the way you do it is to show that government really works.”

As polls show an improved picture for Democrats in the midterms, McKay said that they also should be cautious in their attacks on Donald Trump and the MAGA movement. Biden on Thursday gave a speech in which he warned that Trump and MAGA Republicans were a threat to democracy.

As alarming as the extreme right wing movement may be to the president and many Democrats, McKay said that “we can’t forget that parts of it were incited by the failures of our government. … There are some extreme people, but there are also people who are just sick of the system. So these are people we need to get back by showing that the system can work. He has got to be careful.”

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