01/01/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

When Will Obama Appoint a Secretary of the People?

In the flurry of news about cabinet appointments by President-elect Obama, we have yet to hear about the most important one.

When will Obama appoint a Secretary of the People?

We have elected the next president. Now we desperately need him to name someone whose sole purpose is to defend our interests.

The deepening crisis in the economy is unraveling our lives in ways we haven't witnessed on a national scale in decades.

Ten million Americans are out of work, with more than half a million of them added to the dole in November alone. The increase in unemployment is intensifying the growth in foreclosures, and tens of thousands of people continue to lose their homes every month. (1)

For the first time in decades, an entire generation of Americans faces the prospect of falling behind its parents.

Not that the parents are doing especially well themselves. Millions are helplessly watching their retirement plans turn to vapor after a lifetime of honest labor. They now face the perverse problem of outliving their savings and turning into a burden for their adult children just when the latter themselves are struggling. (2)

Nor is the pitiless economy sparing our young, the future of the country. An entire cohort of high school graduates may find college education harder to come by as public universities cut enrolments in response to state budget cuts. (3) Those already in college wait in dread to emerge into a punishing job market.

When will Obama appoint a Secretary of the People to stand up for us?

There is of course no such position; we have elected Obama himself to work on our behalf.

Yet his ability to do so is severely limited by the powerful corporate interests that dominate our national politics. Obama favors measures to ease the financial burden on individuals of bankruptcy, for example, but these are opposed by the American Bankers Association.

The National Association of Manufacturers has already drawn "a line in the sand" by opposing any attempt by the next government to make it easier for workers to unionize. (4)

In short, for every step Obama considers, there will be someone telling him: No, you can't.

So what will Obama need to effectively serve as our representative? He will need us.

George Packer writes in a recent New Yorker: "Transformative Presidents...have usually had great social movements supporting and pushing them. Lincoln had the abolitionists, Roosevelt the labor unions, Johnson the civil-rights leaders, Reagan the conservative movement. Clinton didn't have one, and after his election, 'everyone went home' (quoting Robert B. Reich, President Bill Clinton's first Labor Secretary)."

"Obama...will need, above all, a mobilized public beyond Washington...Without one, he will soon find himself simply cutting deals." (5)

According to sociologist Frances Fox Piven, the frequent comparisons of Obama to FDR miss the importance of the widespread and organized unrest among large sections of the population during FDR's presidency.

"FDR became a great president because the mass protests among the unemployed, the aged, farmers and workers forced him to make choices he would otherwise have avoided."

Piven writes that national crises can become "moments when ordinary people enter into the political life of the country and authentic bottom-up reform becomes possible." (6)

This history teaches us the hard lesson that we have to be our own most forceful advocates. When Obama starts cutting deals, we, the people, must occupy the most important seat at the table.

As he himself has said, the campaign ultimately was not about him; it was about us. As he himself has said, our work is not over with his electoral victory; it has just begun.

Let us take him at his word. Instead of waiting passively to see what the next administration will do, let us organize ourselves to demand economic security for all.

Let us call town hall meetings in all our communities, not the made for TV variety but the real thing, in which we accept the collective responsibility for running our democracy. Let us use these meetings to formulate and sharpen our demands for economic justice.

Let us use the same social networking strategies perfected by the Obama campaign to organize our communities around these demands.

Let us demonstrate our strength with rallies calling for productive employment, fair wages, and secure pensions for all.

In short, let us not let this crisis go to waste. We spoke clearly on November 4 that we wanted real change. Let us continue to speak clearly until we get it.

We're the ones we've been waiting for, indeed.


1. Unemployment figures were obtained from Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates. Foreclosure data are available at RealtyTrac. See also this CNN report on the connection between the trends in unemployment and foreclosures.

2. New York Times reports on September 22 and November 22, 2008.

3. New York Times report on November 19, 2008.

4. Wall Street Journal report on November 6, 2008.

5. "The new liberalism: How the economic crisis can help Obama redefine the Democrats." November 17, 2008.

6. "Obama needs a protest movement." The Nation, November 13, 2008.