On the Trustee President: Not EITHER/OR but BOTH/AND

Equal Citizens
Published in
6 min readJun 10, 2015


By Lawrence Lessig

I’m glad to see Cenk endorse the idea of a “trustee president.” I had proposed the idea first in my book, and then this week in a post on Medium. In the post this week, I pointed to a wide range of nationally prominent, well-liked (within their party at least) leaders, who could fulfill the role. Cenk’s choice wasn’t on my list, but let’s put that to one side. The point of my writing more now is to respond to some of the reactions to his post. Those reactions make it clear that what Cenk is describing is not yet well understood.

tl;dr: to support a trustee president is not to oppose any particular candidate for president. Or more simply, if you support Bernie, you should also support a trustee.

Here’s why:

The trustee president is not a regular president. Her job is different from the job of a regular president. Her job is to do just one thing: to get fundamental reform passed by Congress. Once that job is done, the trustee resigns.

This is the president as referendum, giving the people a chance to speak clearly by electing someone who would do one, but only one thing. This is the president as bankruptcy judge, fixing the firm, and then passing it back to a regular CEO. This is the president as the adult, imposing a time-out on fighting kids, removing the source of the squabble, and then letting them play again. The only job of the trustee is to intervene, fix a problem, and then get out.

Once she does, the office passes to the vice president. That president is a regular president. Her skills are the skills of a regular president — building coalitions, inspiring the troops, setting the national direction for 4, and possibly 8 years. That president needs the skills of an experienced DC insider. She needs to know every leader in Congress by their first name. She isn’t a symbol or a referendum. She’s a flesh and blood president, who will succeed if she has the talents of Lyndon Johnson or the manner and conviction of Ronald Reagan.

Bernie Sanders is running to be president. A regular president. He’s not identifying the one change he’d make, and then step aside. He’s not framing his candidacy so that no one could doubt the single issue that he is running to address. He has a long list of changes he wants to make as president. And he bundles that list with a fierce conviction and with the credibility that he would do everything in his power to make those changes happen.

Some are skeptical that Bernie could be elected. I am not. But put that question aside. Assume Bernie could win:

The really hard question is this: what could he really do — given the corruption of this system?

Seriously. Which of the many reforms that he wants to make — reforms that would challenge fundamentally the powerful special interests that now run our politics — could he enact, given the corruption of this system?

This is the fundamental fact that we must finally confront: The system has failed. The reason Obama couldn’t pass climate change legislation, or Obamacare without big gifts to insurance and drug companies, or even minimal gun legislation or truly effective Wall Street reform is not because he is weak, or corrupted, or sold-out, or surrounded by kryptonite. It is because the system is catastrophically compromised — by many problems, no doubt, but at the root, Cenk and I believe, by the money. Until we strike at that root, none of the real change that we desperately need will happen. Regardless of who is president, real and essential reform will be stopped.

We all know this. It is as obvious as mud.

And yet every four years, we allow ourselves to be swept up in the fantasy that if we just elect Superman or Superwoman, he or she will have the power to wrestle the special interests to the ground, and finally win. And not just one win, but a series of big reforms. Health care. Climate change. Bank reform. Gun reform. Tax reform. The debt. Immigation. Network Neutrality. Everything is possible with superpowers.

That was my fantasy in 2008, too. I too was waiting for Superman. On January 20, 2009, I was sure Superman had come.

But here’s the thing about the Superman fantasy: it is a fantasy.

A regular president can’t save us, given the system as it is. That’s the fault of the system, not the president. And what we need right now is not another fantasy, but a way to hack the system so that ordinary humans can be effective presidents again.

But can’t Bernie or Hillary, or Marco, or Rand — pick your favorite — fix the system first, and then get on to passing the changes that motivate their campaigns?

No. They cannot. That was the point of my Frodo Baggins for President essay. It will never be in the interest of a regular president — focused as the president always is on the list of accomplishments that she must achieve, not the one, and building a coalition of support, not resting on a single idea — to take on this change. For to take it on is to take Congress on; to take Congress on — without an extraordinary mandate — is to fail.

Even Bernie seems to get this. Indeed, it was Bernie’s announcement speech that led me to write the Frodo piece.

Because I had spoken to him before he announced. He had convinced me that he absolutely understood the totally corrupting influence of money in this system. He had convinced me that he believed that the only solution would be some form of public funding. He had convinced me that he gets it.

But in his announcement, he placed the only reform that could make it even possible for him to get even a fraction of the other changes that he is calling for as something for “the long run,” as he put it.

“The long run”: because even Bernie recognizes this is not really a change that a regular president can bring about. Even Bernie seems to see that this change is not possible, with the system as it is.

Yet nothing that Bernie wants will happen until we make this change happen. Nothing that Bernie wants, or Hillary wants, or anyone wants who wants something more than the status quo.

So if you’re for Bernie, you should also be for a trustee president. It’s not “Bernie or …” but “Bernie and …”

If you’re for Hillary, you should also be for a trustee president. It’s not “Hillary or …” but “Hillary and …”

If you’re for Marco, or Rand, or Jeb, or Lindsay, you should also ‘be for a trustee president. It’s not “(your pick) or ...” but “(your pick) and ….”

Because if you think about it for just a minute, you will recognize what Cenk has seen for a long time. As he told Netroots Nation in 2011, in a quote that opens my book: “There is only one issue in this country: Campaign finance reform.”

Only one issue, and only one kind of president who could bring that reform about: A trustee president, elected with someone else, but elected for just one purpose: to make change happen, and then to go home.

We need to hack the system to fix the system. The trustee president is that hack.

Her mandate would be as clear and as powerful as any, ever; Congress would be hard pressed to ignore it (especially if some of the new members of Congress came there explicitly to support the trustee); the trustee president would have a wide range of tools to put pressure on Congress to pass the reform.

This is a hack that could work. For Bernie, and for all of us.



Equal Citizens

law professor, activist.