Obama yet to heed left’s call for free col­lege for all Bi­den, can­di­dates want de­grees to be ‘uni­ver­sal’

The Washington Times Weekly - - Politics - BY BEN WOLF­GANG

A grow­ing of num­ber of prom­i­nent Democrats — in­clud­ing Vice Pres­i­dent Joseph R. Bi­den — have jumped aboard the free-col­lege-for-ev­ery­one band­wagon in re­cent months, but the party’s loud­est, most in­flu­en­tial voice re­mains con­spic­u­ously silent and has yet to fully throw his weight be­hind an is­sue that has quickly be­come a ral­ly­ing cry for lib­er­als.

Al­though Pres­i­dent Obama has pro­posed two years of free com­mu­nity col­lege for all Amer­i­cans, he hasn’t joined Demo­cratic pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates Hil­lary Rod­ham Clin­ton, Sen. Bernard San­ders and former Mary­land Gov. Martin O’Mal­ley in call­ing for four years of debt-free higher ed­u­ca­tion for all.

White House of­fi­cials say Mr. Obama be­lieves a col­lege de­gree should be “uni­ver­sal,” but they stop short of say­ing the pres­i­dent backs any of the pro­pos­als his po­ten­tial suc­ces­sors have put on the ta­ble. Ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials ac­knowl­edge, how­ever, that they are more than happy to see Mrs. Clin­ton, Mr. San­ders and Mr. O’Mal­ley pro­mot­ing higher ed­u­ca­tion plat­forms that go be­yond what Mr. Obama has dis­cussed.

But the pres­i­dent’s ret­i­cence to speak di­rectly about debt-free col­lege has left lib­eral lead­ers anx­ious, and they say they are ea­gerly await­ing his full-throated sup­port for the idea.

Mr. Obama’s han­dling of free higher ed­u­ca­tion puts him at odds even with Mr. Bi­den, who used a Rose Gar­den speech last month to say that four years of col­lege should be of­fered to all Amer­i­cans just as 12 years of high school is to­day. The vice pres­i­dent’s re­marks were un­ex­pected be­cause his core rea­son for ad­dress­ing the na­tion was to ex­plain why he wouldn’t seek the Oval Of­fice next year.

Some an­a­lysts say the White House — and lib­eral lead­ers — likely re­al­ize that it’s po­lit­i­cally wise for the pres­i­dent to re­main in the back­ground and al­low his po­ten­tial suc­ces­sor to take the lead on such is­sues and, in the process, make the case to vot­ers of be­ing more pro­gres­sive than Mr. Obama on key is­sues.

“At some point, the party would like the pres­i­dent to cede some of th­ese ini­tia­tives to the can­di­dates run­ning. … It would be smart for the White House to step aside and let some­body else carry the wa­ter on this one,” said Bran­don Rottinghaus, a po­lit­i­cal sci­ence pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of Hous­ton who has writ­ten on pres­i­den­tial lead­er­ship.

He ar­gued that the ad­min­is­tra­tion also doesn’t have the time to de­vote to such a ma­jor pol­icy change.

“This is an ini­tia­tive which would re­quire in­put from mul­ti­ple lev­els of gov­ern­ment. It would re­quire partnerships across in­di­vid­ual states. This is the kind of thing that, in terms of pol­icy, is hard to man­u­fac­ture in a short pe­riod of time,” Mr. Rottinghaus said.

The no­tion of free col­lege for all, while pop­u­lar with lib­er­als, would be in­cred­i­bly ex­pen­sive. Mr. San­ders’ plan, for ex­am­ple, could cost as much as $750 bil­lion over 10 years, ac­cord­ing to some es­ti­mates.

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