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Top 20 US Progressives: Matt Damon

Actor and teachers’ campaigner.

If you had to nominate a movie star to be a progressive president, who would you choose? George Clooney is obvious - he's an activist and campaigner, and has the requisite rugged good looks. But Clooney's Ocean's 11 co-star Matt Damon would be the smart choice.

Last August, Damon addressed thousands of teachers at a protest against standardised testing in Washington. With his head shaved and wearing blue jeans, he looked like an American Everyman and he spoke, as the son of a teacher, with fierce passion. The crowd adored him, and erupted into screams when he told them he'd flown across the US to be there because he "needed to tell you all, in person, that I think you are awesome". In that moment, a potential president was born.

The notion isn't entirely frivolous - the US electorate has already rebranded one former actor as a commander-in-chief. Ronald Reagan, the Republican president and star of The Voice of the Turtle and Bedtime for Bonzo, among others, still counts among the nation's most popular leaders. Damon arguably has sturdier credentials than his predecessor. Over the past few years, he has founded a series of non-profit and campaigning ventures, from the H20 Africa Foundation (now part of, which works to provide clean water in poor countries, to Not On Our Watch (co-founded with Clooney and others), which seeks to stop humanitarian catastrophes such as the one in Darfur. He has also lent his voice to causes, narrating Inside Job, a documentary on the 2008 financial crisis and American Teacher, a film about the US teaching system co-produced by the author Dave Eggers. Damon himself produced The People Speak, a 2009 documentary about social change in the US.

Good works and worthy films aside, perhaps his greatest power resides in his willingness to challenge the current president, whose candidacy he supported eagerly in the run-up to the 2008 election. He attended Obama fundraisers and rallies then, but, four years on, Damon is as disillusioned as any of his fellow Obama cheerleaders.

In a recent interview with Elle magazine, he said: "You know, a one-term president with some balls who actually got stuff done would have been, in the long run of the country, much better." He has criticised the president's education policy, analysing how he has caved in to pressure from Wall Street, his failure to improve the economy and his lack of leadership. Like the billionaire Warren Buffett, Damon believes that taxes for the rich should rise. At the Washington march, he told a reporter that "it's criminal that so little is asked of people who are getting so much. I don't mind paying more . . . I'd rather pay for taxes than cut Reading is Fundamental or Head Start or some of these programmes that are really helping kids."

There's no doubt that it's easier for a wealthy actor than for an embattled president to chime with popular sentiment, but Damon has an uncanny ability to read the public mood and is bold and passionate enough to speak out. Obama, cool as ever, is not overly ruffled. In his speech at the White House Correspondents' Dinner last year, he joked: "Matt Damon said he [has been] disappointed in my performance. Well, Matt, I just sawThe Adjustment Bureau, so . . . right back atcha, buddy."

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Sophie Elmhirst is a freelance writer and former New Statesman features editor.

This article first appeared in the 09 January 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Forget Obama