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.