The President We Need

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

I don’t normally do this.

Putting energy into the horse race of presidential politics is distracting at best, and actively disempowering at worst, for people working to create transformative political change. The importance of the presidency, while undeniable, is certainly not as great as the media circus would have us believe. History shows that policy outcomes are determined not by which man (they have all been men) is in office, but by the relative balance of power between the owning class and insurgent social movements.

For this reason, my personal political work aims not to elect this or that candidate, but to build powerful social movements that will make change regardless of who is in office. I generally avoid thinking about the presidency altogether.

With the clamor of the election reaching a fever pitch, though, I’ve found myself daydreaming about what a transformative presidency would look like today. If this daydream seems completely unrealistic, let it be a signal of just how far away we are from the leadership we need.

In keeping with the theories of social change articulated above, I define a transformative president as one who shifts the socio-political balance of power. A transformative president would understand that the struggle for power among workers, owners, and other organized social blocs is the real engine of history. Therefore, within the limits of the office, they would take every opportunity as president to tilt the playing field toward workers and communities, and away from the owning class. Possible examples include more government funding for community organizing and worker’s unions, establishing participatory governance structures to enable community self-determination (such as the “socialist communities” being implemented by Hugo Chavez), and a tax code that limits the economic power of the owning class. The exact policies are unimportant–what matters is that they increase the ability of workers and communities to organize in their interest, and decrease the ability of the owning class to do the same.

It is with this frame that we should assess President Obama’s first term. We know that he supports some progressive causes, but does he support the shifts in power that would enable a true progressive resurgence? Looking at the record, the answer is clearly no.

Over the course of Obama’s presidency, the President has repeatedly declined to take action that would shift power away from the economic elite. During the economic crisis, Obama missed a once-in-a-generation opportunity to break up the big banks, and even rejected a proposal–negotiated by the Bush Administration–that would have forced banks to write down mortgages. In addition to these economic policies, Obama’s policies have effectively divided and destabilized the communities that could pose a threat to the owning class. By continuing the racist war on drugs, Obama has perpetuated the over-policing and over-imprisonment of African-American communities, and he similarly destabilized Latino communities by increasing immigration raids and deportations to their highest level ever. When the Occupy movement became a counterpower to the elite, Obama’s Department of Homeland Security helped coordinate nationwide police repression to cripple the movement.

For a prime example of Obama’s conservative, elitist approach to making change, look no further than his signature legislation, the Affordable Care Act. When the president took office, public support for a single-payer system was at 60%, with the pharmaceutical industry strongly opposed. Not coincidentally, single-payer is widely considered to be the reform that would stem the ever-rising costs of healthcare. The president had a choice to make. He could have partnered with advocacy groups to make a populist appeal for single-payer and strengthen the support base needed to pass legislation. Instead, he struck a backroom deal with Big Pharma promising not to pursue single-payer. We all know the result–30 million people got coverage, but we still spend far more on health care than the rest of the world, and the opponents of systemic reform are more entrenched than ever.

This is emblematic of Obama’s presidency as a whole–even the progressive “victories” benefit the ruling elite most of all. Without any populist policies to his name, we certainly can’t call Obama’s presidency a step in the right direction. If anything, he has facilitated the upward redistribution of power and wealth that began under Reagan and has continued since.

All this said, I completely understand the tactical decision to vote for Obama. Even if the two candidates do represent and serve the same ruling elite, there are policy differences between them, especially on social issues, that affect people’s lives. Without a viable alternative, the calculation to vote for Obama on social policy makes a lot of sense.

The task for self-proclaimed progressives, whether we vote for Obama, a third party, or boycott the election, is to keep our eyes on the prize of social and political transformation. Let’s not sugarcoat Obama’s record or place our hopes in him. The lesser of two evils is evil nonetheless. Whatever happens tomorrow, we’ll awake on Wednesday with the same need to build movements that shift the balance of political power. If we see a transformative president in our lifetime, we will have been the real agents of transformation.

Come see Will Lawrence ’13 debate Sam Sussman ’13 and Danielle Charette ’14 tonight in SCI 101 at 8pm. Town hall to follow the debate.


  1. Smart as hell. Everything you wrote should be common sense. The angle of the approach is perfect. Sharpshooter politics.

    If everyone talked politics like this, we would be so much more effective in the world at large. Good luck at the debate.

  2. “History shows that policy outcomes are determined not by which man (they have all been men) is in office, but by the relative balance of power between the owning class and insurgent social movements.”

    Does it really?

    Let’s try a simple thought experiment. Imagine a few hundred votes had gone differently in Florida in 2000, and Gore had been elected president; other variables, like the “relative balance of power between the owning class and insurgent social movements,” remain the same. Does anyone really imagine that that wouldn’t have made a whole lot of difference to policy outcomes?

    • I won’t claim that it wouldn’t have made any difference–just like there would certainly be differences between Romney and a second Obama term. If you had an impression to the contrary, it was due to imprecision in my language.

      The point I want to make is that, whether we have Bush, Gore, Obama, or Romney, we are still on the fundamentally wrong path as a country. Gore *might* not have gone to war in Iraq, but he likely would have continued the pattern of U.S. global expansion that has continued under every president since the Cold War. He would have continued Clinton’s policy of financial deregulation and neoliberal “free trade.” On the issues that pit the economic interests and community self-determination of working people against the interests of the owning class, every Democratic and Republican president since Reagan has come down on the side of the elite.

      If we want to identify the cause of this trend, I can find no better reason than the weakened state of organized labor in the U.S. Whether it’s through labor or some as-yet-undefined alternative, our task is to acheive the level of counterpower that marked the post-war era–and then move beyond even that.

  3. “During the economic crisis, Obama missed a once-in-a-generation opportunity to break up the big banks, and even rejected a proposal–negotiated by the Bush Administration–that would have forced banks to write down mortgages.”

    Can you explain the benefit both to the economy and to society of breaking up these banks? It is hard to believe that removing large banks from the equation would make the credit markets more liquid or even more “fair” to the average consumer or business. To address the issues of the financial crisis, you have to understand the fundamental drivers first. I would argue that at the most fundamental point, the financial crisis was driven by the expectation that home prices would never go down. I don’t think your “once-in-a-generation” opportunity counteracts that driver.

    Also, I suspect you don’t understand the mechanics of write-downs and why Obama opposed such a measure. The write-downs would have allowed banks to use large non-cash charges to offset taxable income and lower their tax burden. The only arguable position for a democrat to make concerning Obama’s opposition is that perhaps the banks would have been more lenient in the servicing of these mortgages, if they no longer are reflected on their balance sheets.

  4. “Obama missed a once-in-a-generation opportunity to break up the big banks.”

    ^Seriously. For all the Swattie hate on big banks, find me ONE Swarthmore Econ professor who wouldn’t have done exactly what Bush began to do, and what Obama completed.

  5. We should remember that most econ research actually has _nothing_ to do with policy, meaning that political leanings of econ profs is only useful in that they might be more “financially literate” than the student body.

  6. “During the economic crisis, Obama missed a once-in-a-generation opportunity to break up the big banks…”

    I nearly stopped reading after this. Destabilizing credit markets is exactly what NOT to do during a recession.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

The Phoenix

Discover more from The Phoenix

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading