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What We Get Wrong About Presidential Power

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What We Get Wrong About Presidential Power

Supporters of Democratic U.S. presidential candidate Bernie Sanders react to primary election results during a campaign rally in Phoenix

Published with permission from The Washington Monthly.

It’s not every day news events follow the contours of a new book’s prevailing conceit. That’s what’s happening with Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders’ insurgent campaign for the presidential nomination of the Democratic Party. His populist message is that the party of the people has failed the people, and that one of those most emblematic of that failure is his rival, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Qualifications for the presidency, Sanders has further suggested, don’t come from being born into a ruling family, or, in Clinton’s case, from being married to a former democratically elected ruler. Qualifications come from believing in the right ideology. On April 6, he said:

“I don’t believe that [Clinton] is qualified if she is through her super PAC taking tens of millions of dollars in special-interest funds. I don’t think that you are qualified if you get $15 million from Wall Street … I don’t think you’re qualified if you supported almost every disastrous trade agreement.”

Those are the broad outlines of Thomas Frank’s new polemical, Listen, Liberal: Or What Ever Happened to the Party of the People. In it, the author of What’s the Matter with Kansas? mounts a scathing indictment of the Clintons and their Democratic Party. He writes:

“This book has been a catalogue of the many ways the Democratic Party has failed to tackle income inequality, even though that is the leading social issue of the times, and its many failures to get tough on the financial industry, even though Wall Street was the leading culprit in the global downturn and the slump-that-never-ends. The larger message is that this is what it looks like when a lefty party loses its interest in working people, the traditional number one constituency for left parties the world over.”

Like Sanders, Frank believes the crisis was wasted. The Democrats did not break up the big banks; re-implement the 1933 Glass-Steagall Act, which walled off commercial accounts from banks’ investments; or nationalize banks to create public utilities. They did not, as less moderate president like FDR or LBJ would have, save us from the tyranny of economic royalists.

While the people demanded justice, the Democrats offered a technocratic band-aid. Worse, the populists said, the many provisions of the 2010 Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform Act wouldn’t be felt for years.

So the Tea Party insurrection of 2010 wasn’t seen as a political setback for the Democrats so much as a failure of conviction—and that failure, Frank writes, continues to haunt the American people to this day.

“Even if the Democrats do succeed in winning the presidency in 2016 and the same old team gets to continue on into the future, it won’t save us,” Frank writes. “While there are many great Democrats and many exceptions to the trends I have described in this book, by and large the story has been a disappointing one.”

Ever since the parties realigned in 1960s-1970s, left-wing populists have pined for the day when Democrats would return to their working-class roots. Thomas Frank, the founding editor of The Baffler, is one such populist. But such pining is a misreading of history fueled by nostalgia. The Democrats remain the party of the working class. Instead of mostly white men, though, the working class now comprises mostly minorities and women.

The Democratic coalition does include progressive elites, but that inclusion is not ipso facto a betrayal of class interest, as Frank would have it, so much as a reflection of faction. Factions form uneasy coalitions to fight common foes despite harboring grave doubts about each other. The party moreover didn’t abandon working class white men. Many if not most working class white men, hammered by stagflation and disillusioned by the Democrats’ full embrace of civil rights, abandoned the party.

For Frank, the real problem appears to be that progressive elites have any place at the table with the working class. That is enough, Frank says, to have “wrecked the Democratic Party as a populist alternative.”

Populists are ambivalent about power. Those who have it are not to be trusted. Those who have it must change the world. This especially applies to Democratic presidents. Lars-Erik Nelson, the late columnist for the New York Daily News, brilliantly called this “the illusion of presidential omnipotence.” For populists like Frank and Sanders, pretty much everything that’s wrong with the country can be pinned on the chief executive, because presidents is seen to have more power than they actually have.

Nelson did not suffer magical thinking. In reviewing Dead Center: Clinton-Gore Leadership and the Perils of Moderation, by FDR scholars James MacGregor Burns and Georgia S. Sorenson, for the New York Review of Books, in 1999, Nelson wrote that President Bill Clinton is seen as “guilty … not because he is a knave or a fool, but, just as bad, because he is a centrist who shunned the radical changes and bold solutions that a more energetic and partisan leader could have achieved.”

“[Burns and Sorenson] complain that he has failed to solve urgent national problems, and they attribute this failure to his centrism, which they regard as an inherently flawed ideology, because it is incapable of effecting great transformational change.”

That sounds familiar.

In Listen, Liberal, Frank describes President-elect Barack Obama, as the financial crisis is beginning to unfold, as a “living, breathing evidence that our sclerotic system could still function, that we could rise to the challenge, that could change course. It was the perfect opportunity for transformation.” Yet, Frank says, that transformation didn’t happen.

So Obama and the Democrats failed.

But what could they have been done differently? While he excels at calling the Democrats to account, Frank falls short in offering policy recommendations, even rough sketches of policy. There are none.

Populists don’t take such questions seriously, because such questions assume that knowledge, method, and procedure are more important than believing in the righteousness of the cause. Frank is no exception.

Indeed, one wonders what would happen if Frank were put in Sanders’ place when the candidate was interviewed by the editorial board of the New York Daily News. After reiterating moments in his stump speech when he calls for the break up of big banks, Sanders was pressed for more detail. What would such banks look like after you broke them up, the editors asked.

Sanders: “I’m not running JPMorgan Chase or Citibank. … It’s something I have not studied, honestly, the legal implications of that.”

Frank and Sanders are right in one very big way—inequities of wealth, income, and power threaten our lives, livelihoods, and republican democracy. All of us need big bold ideas and the political courage to see them realized. Being right in one very big way is the primary strength of populism. Progressives do the work, but populists are the voices of conscience, the moral scolds, the screaming Jeremiahs.

But they are wrong too.

The current president has done more with more resistance in the name of progress than any president since nobody knows. Along with flawed-but-good health care reform, financial regulation, and sustainable energy policy, Obama has achieved: gender-equity laws; minimum wage rules for government contractors; a labor relations board that serves labor; and a tax rule barring corporate “inversions.” And he formally ended two wars.

Populists and progressives need each other, like it or not. Together they have over nearly eight years forged a strong foundation on which the next Democratic president can built a brighter future.

Photo: Supporters of Democratic U.S. presidential candidate Bernie Sanders react to the primary election results in the states of Florida, Ohio and Illinois during a campaign rally in Phoenix, Arizona March 15, 2016. REUTERS/Nancy Wiechec

John Stoehr is a lecturer in political science at Yale and the 2016 Koeppel Journalism Fellow at Wesleyan.



  1. weldonberger April 25, 2016

    The pull quote from the Sanders interview at the Daily News is stunningly dishonest and possibly ignorant as well, although the latter seems unlikely. The quote is a conflation of the replies to two separate questions; the first, how would Sanders break up big banks, and the second, how would the court decision on MetLife’s escape from being categorized as too big to fail affect his thinking on the subject.

    On the first question, Sanders’ response is orthodox: once the government determines a bank should be broken up, it’s left to the bank to figure out how best to do so. This is the position every single economist, regulator and bank takes, and it’s the impetus behind the regulatory requirement that banks draw up a “living will,” that being a workable plan on how to break themselves up. So on this question, perhaps the author simply has no idea what he’s talking about.

    On the second issue, the MetLife decision was handed down just a few days before the interview and the full decision was still under seal, so Sanders’ response, that he hadn’t studied the legal implications of it, is perfectly reasonable. How could he have, since the decision was only a few days old and the explanation of it was not actually available for study?

    Maybe Stoehr is ignorant in this regard as well; maybe Yale’s standards aren’t what they used to be; maybe the definition of “political science” is degraded. Maybe he copied the quote as abridged from someone else without bothering to check the original source; maybe neither scholarship nor journalism demand that these days. Or maybe he’s just being dishonest.

    1. Otto T. Goat April 25, 2016

      That ellipsis is dishonest. However it is clear Bernie has not given a lot of thought about what breaking up banks would entail.

    2. JPHALL April 26, 2016

      Or maybe you are just an apologist.

    3. yabbed April 26, 2016

      Sanders totally failed that interview with the NY Daily News editorial board. They actually said his ignorance was astonishing. I watched it in its entirety and the only answers he had to offer were the same platitudes he screams out at every occasion: take down the billionaires and break up big banks. But he could not even begin to answer the question of how he intended to do either. To tell the truth, Bernie is clearly loving the billionaire’s life of private jets and limos and bodyguards and being so, so important. He’s going to keep yelling on until the very last moment so he can keep this rich man’s life he’s become accustomed to. Besides, his wife is taking home 20% of all contributions to his campaign as a consultant. Bernie and Jane certainly love seeing that money pile up in their bank account.

    4. CrankyToo April 26, 2016

      “John Stoehr is a lecturer in political science at Yale and the 2016 Koeppel Journalism Fellow at Wesleyan.”

      This piece does not appear to have been written by a Yale-educated lecturer and “Journalism Fellow”. Nor does it appear to have been edited by anyone possessed of a command of the English language. It’s rife with grammatical (or, at the very least, typographical) errors.

      If you expect me to be persuaded by your argument, you must demonstrate that you’re at least as smart as I.

  2. Otto T. Goat April 25, 2016

    Celebrate your “flawed but good” health care reform.

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  3. Otto T. Goat April 25, 2016

    Liberals despise the white working class.

  4. Rich April 26, 2016

    Anyone who characterizes FDR as a radical is being disingenuous. In fact, he was as establishment as anyone could be. His presidency saved capitalism from its excesses and prevented a revolution in this country. Sanders supporters cannot lionize FDR as a revolutionary and square that with the fact that the reforms made during his presidency were exactly the sort of incremental change that more realistic contemporary Democrats have sought.

  5. Jess April 26, 2016

    Thank you for a fair, insightful, analysis of Thomas Frank’s thesis (and Democratic Party history).

  6. yabbed April 26, 2016

    What makes a Socialist Workers Party member like Sanders think he can impose himself on the Democratic Party and make demands? Sanders hasn’t a clue about Democrats or how the Presidency works. Having languished for so many, many years on the government payroll you would think he would have a clue about Presidential powers and the limitations on those powers. He would be unable to convert a single campaign promise into reality. So, which is he? A fraud or a dumb bunny?

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