One of the recurring themes in commentary on national politics is the demand for the president to change politics as we know it to accomplish some otherwise unattainable political goal. If only President Obama tried a little harder, some critics claim, he could magically overcome legislative obstacles to gun control or clean energy legislation. I’ve dubbed this fantasy the Green Lantern Theory of the Presidency in honor of the comic book superheroes whose abilities to use their “power rings” depend on their willpower.
Tuesday’s New York Times column by David Brooks on the debate over the so-called budget sequester is a case in point. Brooks freely admits that he’s writing about a “dream Obama,” yet demands—like so many Green Lantern-ites before him—that the President “fundamentally shift the terms” of the debate and “transform the sequester fight by changing the categories that undergird it.” How would Obama do this? Brooks would have him propose to “take spending that currently goes to the affluent elderly and redirect it to the young and the struggling,” “nurture investment by starting a debate” on a consumption tax, and “talk obsessively about family structure and social repair.” (Not mentioned: when the Affordable Care Act championed by Obama actually did shift future health spending from the elderly to “the young and struggling,” it sharpened partisan divisions rather than transforming them.)
Likewise, a Tuesday Washington Post editorial flagged by Slate’s Matthew Yglesias agrees with Obama’s proposed approach to the budget debate but nonetheless faults him for “not leading the way to a solution.” The problem? Not enough rhetoric! “Mr. Obama has presented entitlement reform as something he would do grudgingly, as a favor to the opposition, when he should be explaining to the American people—and to his party—why it is an urgent national need,” the Post writes.
The demands for greater presidential will in a Monday column by National Journal’s Ron Fournier were even more vague. Fournier acknowledges Republican “obstinacy” but nonetheless demands that Obama “lead a stubborn Congress to actual compromise and accomplishment.” How exactly? Fournier doesn’t know either! “His aides and allies will ask, ‘Exactly what can he do to get the GOP to deal?’ That is a question best put to the president, a skilled and well-meaning leader elected to answer the toughest questions.” (As New York Magazine’s Jonathan Chait put it, “Hypnosis! Jedi mind tricks! Whatever!”)
But perhaps the most absurd example of Green Lantern-ism came in a David Ignatius column in this morning’s Washington Post that Greg Sargent, a liberal blogger for the newspaper’s website, described as the “[b]est example of ‘Daddy Obama must force problem children in Congress to behave’ ever.” In the column, Ignatius offers a biting critique of House Republicans—he compares them to drunk drivers, calls them the “primary culprits” behind budget gridlock and dysfunction, and accuses them of being “intoxicated with their own ideology.”
And yet, Ignatius says, it is Obama who “needs to provide the presidential leadership that guides Congress and the country toward fiscal stability… he should take the steering wheel firmly in hand and drive the car toward the destination.” What does that mean, exactly? What steering wheel? The best Ignatius can do, again, is to ask for magic words. He writes that Obama has failed to make “a clear, firm presidential statement that speaks to everyone onboard, those who voted for him and those who didn’t—that could get the country where it needs to go.” But if the president could make a statement that would convince everyone to agree with him, wouldn’t he have already done so?
While it’s true that the president does have some agenda-setting power, these commentators greatly overstate Obama’s ability to create political consensus through proposals and rhetoric (absent him simply yielding to GOP demands). As the political scientist John Sides pointed out on Twitter, “No theory of political or policy change should hinge on how presidents ‘talk.’” Green Lantern-ites have been seduced by the myth of the bully pulpit and do not seem to appreciate the relatively limited powers of the president on domestic policy issues.
The media should instead focus greater attention on Congress, which writes the tax and budget legislation that determines how the federal government spends its money. Obama has relatively little leverage over the Republicans who control the House of Representatives, almost all of whom represent districts he lost in 2012. And while the sequester was designed to be so onerous that it would force both parties to compromise, avoiding the the sequester would still require substantial political pain, making it difficult for the administration to herd legislators toward a deal.