President Obama has recently used his executive powers to suspend the federal government’s use of private prisons and to reduce the sentences of hundreds of nonviolent prisoners. The immediate effects of these steps are minor considering that state and local governments do most of America’s incarceration and that both state and federal laws continue to impose years of confinement for nonviolent drug offenses. Yet the steps are remarkable: Obama, in the relative freedom of his second term, demonstrates a redemptive sense of history. He understands that inequalities of the past continue to determine the present and takes some responsibility for mitigating that power dynamic, albeit tempered with strategic caution given the practical limits of his political power.
The limited nature of these and other steps Obama has accomplished in two terms should make us question assumptions about the distribution of power in America. We place extraordinary faith in the power of one person to reform the country. This presidential fetish directs enormous amounts of money and attention on one office, the core function of which is not to change laws but to execute them, and even then only in the exercise of limited federal power, not plenary state power.
Take solace if the upcoming election places a TV celebrity in office: this crisis would expose the fact that the president is little more than a glorified celebrity. In turn, this may lead us to ask: Would we be better off eliminating the distraction of the presidency? Then, voters might pay half as much attention to Congress, the judiciary, and state and local government, and the other half to the corporate sector subsidized by government, each of which exercises more influence on our lives than any president can. Then, we might understand what we the people have, once we stop surrendering it to one charismatic leader or the other and begin to take responsibility for it: power.