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Morning news brief

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

President Biden made a rare prime-time speech Thursday night at the place where American democracy was born - in Philadelphia.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

He spoke on the way into Labor Day, which is the traditional start of election season. Some Republican candidates on the ballot this fall have denied the results of the last big election in 2020.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: I believe America is at an inflection point, one of those moments that determine the shape of everything that's to come after. And now America must choose to move forward or to move backwards.

INSKEEP: Now, the White House insisted this was not a political speech, although Biden laid out a choice for voters.

MARTIN: NPR senior political editor and correspondent Domenico Montanaro is with us this morning. Hey, Domenico.

DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: Hey, Rachel.

MARTIN: So we just heard that clip. As Steve said, the president's clearly trying to use the moment to define a stark choice.

MONTANARO: Well, he really wants to get across that the threats to democracy are urgent. You know, he called out MAGA Republicans, as he called them, and Donald Trump. He actually name-checked Trump three times in this speech, something Biden doesn't usually do.

MARTIN: Right.

MONTANARO: Of course, when you do that, it's going to look and sound pretty political. But this was Biden really drawing a line in the sand.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BIDEN: Democracy cannot survive when one side believes there are only two outcomes to an election - either they win, or they were cheated.

MONTANARO: Biden referring to Trump's election lies there. And politically, you know, you have a president facing high inflation, low approval ratings, and ordinarily, that would mean a wipeout coming for the party in power in a midterm year. But with Trump playing such an unusually prominent role in these elections, Biden and the White House see an opportunity to make this a choice rather than a referendum on Biden's presidency.

MARTIN: So a prime-time address like this is sort of unusual, right? I mean, he wasn't making some big policy announcement. It could have backfired. What was the political calculation?

MONTANARO: Yeah, it really is unusual. I mean, you might be forgiven if you thought that this was 2024 and you were listening to Biden's convention speech because that's what it sounded like. But that's not to say that there aren't real threats. You know, you have election deniers running for office to control elections. There's political violence, threats against the FBI, poll workers and elections officials. And as we've said many times, watching the January 6 hearings, for example, the institutions of democracy held in 2020 but only because of people. Now those institutions look somewhat weaker or more under threat because many of the people that could run these institutions now say they believe Trump's election lies.

MARTIN: I mean, it's notable to me that the president in this address tried to differentiate between the Republican Party and Donald Trump supporters, which is interesting because that's difficult. But how did Republicans respond to this address?

MONTANARO: Well, even before Biden spoke, House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy said Biden needed to apologize to the millions of Americans who voted for Trump. And it really shows McCarthy's full shift that he's made after January 6 in his quest to become speaker of the House. And like you said, Biden tried to make clear that he was talking about Republican elected officials, not voters.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BIDEN: Not every Republican embraces their extreme ideology. I know 'cause I've been able to work with these mainstream Republicans. But there's no question that the Republican Party today is dominated, driven and intimidated by Donald Trump and the MAGA Republicans. And that is a threat to this country.

MONTANARO: Now, Biden is not always artful with his language, so this is going to be a very fine line for him to continue to try and walk. And Republicans are already using this to try and fire up their base against Biden. But Democrats want to show some moral clarity here for their base as well. And all of this really feels like a preview to 2024 more than anything else.

MARTIN: Tis the season. NPR's Domenico Montanaro. Thank you.

MONTANARO: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: All right, President Biden's student loan forgiveness plan faces criticism and not just from Republicans. His critics assert that he exceeded his authority in doing this. They also say he didn't address the larger problem of college costs.

INSKEEP: NPR education reporter Sequoia Carrillo says a lot of former students have an entirely different set of questions.

SEQUOIA CARRILLO, BYLINE: In the wake of this announcement, I've been chatting with a lot of student loan borrowers who had a lot of questions, and these are a few that just kept coming up over and over again, kind of specific questions about who qualifies for what type of loan forgiveness.

INSKEEP: Which people must really have questions because it's personal to them. There are millions of people who are either in the program or out of the program at this point.

CARRILLO: Yes.

INSKEEP: So here's one of the questions on your list - how do I apply for this forgiveness, or do I even need to apply?

CARRILLO: Yes. So most borrowers will have to submit an application for loan forgiveness just to prove that they meet the income requirements. The good news is about 8 million or so borrowers already have income information on file with the Department of Education.

INSKEEP: OK.

CARRILLO: And they should qualify to have their debts canceled automatically.

INSKEEP: They don't even have to ask?

CARRILLO: So they should keep an eye on their loan balances and make sure that they're following through on this, but it should happen automatically. But for everyone else, which is the majority of borrowers, they'll have to submit an application. And we don't really know what the application will look like yet, but we do know when it's coming. It should be out in early October. And the administration says it'll take about four to six weeks to process an application, so they're asking for borrowers to try to submit before November 15. That way, they have ample time to get everything processed before the loan pause ends at the end of the year.

INSKEEP: Here's another common question. Of course, there's an income requirement. You have to be below a certain income. People's incomes have changed a lot over the last couple of years. People have left their jobs, lost their jobs, changed jobs. How do they calculate their income? What counts?

CARRILLO: This is such a good question and one I have heard over and over again. And really, what we have is, according to a senior White House official, they will be looking at borrowers' incomes from 2020 or 2021. And here's what that means. If in either 2020 or 2021, an individual borrower made less than $125,000 - or 250,000 for a couple - then they are eligible for forgiveness. So it's an either-or situation. And more information on this should be coming out soon. This is just what we have right now.

INSKEEP: OK, so those two years are the key years to look at.

CARRILLO: Yes.

INSKEEP: Not before, not since.

CARRILLO: Yes.

INSKEEP: That sort of thing. When they say it's up to $10,000 forgiveness, or 20,000 in some cases, what does the up-to part mean?

CARRILLO: Basically, the up to is about how much debt you have. So if you owe, say, $7,000 in student loans but you qualify for up to $10,000 in forgiveness, you get all 7,000 erased, but you don't get that 3,000 extra.

INSKEEP: One other question - what if you're someone who just recently paid off your student loan, kept paying through the pandemic when you could have had a pause and just paid and got it done? Can you get your money back?

CARRILLO: OK, so the Ed Department's website says borrowers can request a refund for any payment made during the payment pause, which has started back in March of 2020. To get this refund, borrowers have to contact their loan servicer first, and then once your loan balance resets after the refund, you should apply for forgiveness under Biden's new plan. Obviously, before you request a refund or go any further, you should try to make sure that you qualify for some level of forgiveness, either the baseline $10,000 or the up to $20,000 for Pell Grant recipients.

INSKEEP: But you can look into it. If you don't ask, you don't get. NPR's Sequoia Carrillo covers education. Thanks so much.

CARRILLO: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: As Americans get ready to mark a holiday honoring workers in the labor movement, we are about to get an update on the health of the U.S. labor market.

INSKEEP: That market has been unusually tight with an unemployment rate matching its lowest level in 50 years. Employers have been adding even more jobs, and we find out later this morning if that continued in August.

MARTIN: We've got NPR's Scott Horsley with us this morning. Hey, Scott.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: So July's job gains actually turned out to be much stronger than expected. How are things shaping up for August?

HORSLEY: The job market has been a real bright spot in the U.S. economy, and forecasters expect to see another strong month of hiring - maybe not quite as strong as July when employers added more than half a million jobs, but you never know. Wells Fargo is predicting that employers added about 375,000 jobs last month. The bank actually raised its jobs forecast yesterday after a better-than-expected report on the manufacturing sector. You know, for a long time, factories have struggled to hire as many workers as they would like, but Tim Fiore, who does a survey of manufacturers every month for the Institute for Supply Management, says factories had better luck recruiting workers in August.

TIM FIORE: Our hiring ability has gotten better, and we're actually seeing gains in the payroll.

HORSLEY: There have also been some other signs, positive signs, about the job market. New claims for unemployment fell last week for the third consecutive week. Those claims are really low by historical standards, which suggests employers are reluctant to cut workers right now. And that's not surprising because at last count, there were almost twice as many vacant jobs as there are unemployed people looking for work. So the job market remains really tight.

MARTIN: I mean, so workers have a lot of leverage in this moment, yet we've been seeing these big swings in the stock market in recent days - right? - mostly in the downward direction. What's going on?

HORSLEY: Investors are concerned that there is a cloud behind this silver-line job market, and that is higher inflation and higher interest rates. A week ago, Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell warned in Jackson Hole, Wyo., that the central bank is going to keep raising interest rates and leave them up in order to get control over runaway prices. Powell acknowledged that may cause some pain for both businesses and families. And one of the things that worries him is that while the U.S. has been adding a lot of jobs, the labor market looks really lopsided.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JEROME POWELL: The labor market is particularly strong, but it is clearly out of balance, with demand for workers substantially exceeding the supply of available workers.

HORSLEY: And Powell worries this very tight job market could fuel additional consumer demand, and that could push prices even higher.

MARTIN: I mean, you nodded to this earlier, but wages - I mean, it's such a tight job market. Wages, though, are going up, right?

HORSLEY: Wages are going up, but prices are going up even faster. So workers are getting more money in their paychecks, but it's not going as far at the supermarket or when it comes time to pay the electric bill, for example. So the Fed's keeping an eye on wages. So is Nela Richardson. She is chief economist at the payroll processing company ADP. She's been keeping tabs on the wages of about 10 million workers and says it looks as if pay raises are starting to level off.

NELA RICHARDSON: We have seen this big jump now stabilize. Wages have jumped up, but they have stabilized, and so depending on your view, half empty or half full, could be interpreted as good news for the future of inflation.

HORSLEY: Average wages in July were up 5.2% from a year ago. We'll see this morning what happened in August.

MARTIN: NPR economic correspondent Scott Horsley. Thank you, Scott.

HORSLEY: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.