The Most Enduring Myth About the Presidency

The Green Lantern theory just won’t go away.

A man marches in the Dragoncon parade dressed as the character 'Green Lantern', on September 3, 2011, in Atlanta, Georgia. Dragoncon is a multimedia convention held annually over Labor Day weekend that draws tens of thousands of comic book, fantasy, gaming, comics, literature, art, music film and science-fiction fans. AFP PHOTO/JOHN AMIS (Photo credit should read John Amis/AFP/Getty Images)
National Journal
Norm Ornstein
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Norm Ornstein
April 22, 2014, 4:18 p.m.

The LBJ Lib­rary re­cently held a mul­ti­day pro­gram to com­mem­or­ate the 50th an­niversary of the Civil Rights Act, and by all ac­counts, the pro­gram was stir­ring and stim­u­lat­ing, up to and in­clud­ing Pres­id­ent Obama’s speech.

But there was one down­side: the re­act­iv­a­tion of one of the most en­dur­ing memes and myths about the pres­id­ency, and es­pe­cially the Obama pres­id­ency. Like Rasputin (or Whac-A-Mole,) it keeps com­ing back even after it has been bludgeoned and ob­lit­er­ated by facts and lo­gic. I feel com­pelled to whack this mole once more.

The meme is what Mat­thew Yglesi­as, writ­ing in 2006, re­ferred to as “the Green Lan­tern The­ory of Geo­pol­it­ics,” and has been re­fined by Greg Sar­gent and Brendan Nyhan in­to the Green Lan­tern The­ory of the pres­id­ency. In a nut­shell, it at­trib­utes hero­ic powers to a pres­id­ent — if only he would use them. And the hold­ers of this the­ory have turned it in­to the meme that if only Obama used his power of per­sua­sion, he could have the kind of suc­cess that LBJ en­joyed with the Great So­ci­ety, that Bill Clin­ton en­joyed in his al­li­ance with Newt Gin­grich that gave us wel­fare re­form and fisc­al suc­cess, that Ron­ald Re­agan had with Dan Ros­ten­kowski and Bill Brad­ley to get tax re­form, and so on.

If only Obama had dealt with Con­gress the way LBJ did — per­suad­ing, ca­jol­ing, threat­en­ing, and sweet-talk­ing mem­bers to at­tain his goals — his pres­id­ency would not be on the ropes and he would be a hero. If only Obama would schmooze with law­makers the way Bill Clin­ton did, he would have much great­er suc­cess. If only Obama would work with Re­pub­lic­ans and not try to steam­roll them, he could be a hero and have a fisc­al deal that would solve the long-term debt prob­lem.

If only the pro­ponents of this the­ory would step back and look at the real­it­ies of all these pres­id­en­cies (or would read or re­read the Richard Neustadt clas­sic, Pres­id­en­tial Power.)

I do un­der­stand the sen­ti­ment here and the frus­tra­tion over the deep dys­func­tion that has taken over our polit­ics. It is tempt­ing to be­lieve that a pres­id­ent could over­come the tri­bal­ism, po­lar­iz­a­tion, and chal­lenges of the per­man­ent cam­paign, by do­ing what oth­er pres­id­ents did to over­come their chal­lenges. It is not as if passing le­gis­la­tion and mak­ing policy was easy in the old days.

But here is the real­ity, start­ing with the John­son pres­id­ency. I do not want to den­ig­rate LBJ or down­play his re­mark­able ac­com­plish­ments and the cour­age he dis­played in tak­ing on his own base, South­ern Demo­crats, to en­act land­mark civil-rights and vot­ing-rights laws that have done more to trans­form Amer­ica in a pos­it­ive way than al­most any­thing else in our life­times. And it is a fact that the 89th Con­gress, that of the Great So­ci­ety, can make the case for hav­ing more sweep­ing ac­com­plish­ments, from vot­ing rights to Medi­care to ele­ment­ary and sec­ond­ary edu­ca­tion re­form, than any oth­er.

LBJ had a lot to do with the agenda, and the ac­com­plish­ments. But his drive for civil rights was aided in 1964 by hav­ing the mo­mentum fol­low­ing John F. Kennedy’s as­sas­sin­a­tion, and the part­ner­ship of Re­pub­lic­ans Ever­ett Dirk­sen and Bill Mc­Cul­lough, de­tailed beau­ti­fully in new books by Clay Ris­en and Todd Purdum. And John­son was aided sub­stan­tially in 1965-66 by hav­ing swollen ma­jor­it­ies of his own party in both cham­bers of Con­gress — 68 of 100 sen­at­ors, and 295 House mem­bers, more than 2-to-1 mar­gins. While John­son needed, and got, sub­stan­tial Re­pub­lic­an sup­port on civil rights and vot­ing rights to over­come South­ern Demo­crats’ op­pos­i­tion, he did not get a lot of Re­pub­lic­ans sup­port­ing the rest of his do­mest­ic agenda. He had enough Demo­crats sup­port­ing those policies to en­sure pas­sage, and he got enough GOP votes on fi­nal pas­sage of key bills to en­sure the le­git­im­acy of the ac­tions.

John­son de­serves cred­it for horse-trad­ing (for ex­ample, find­ing con­ces­sions to give to Demo­crat Wil­bur Mills, chair­man of the House Ways and Means Com­mit­tee, to get his sup­port for Medi­care), but it was the num­bers that made the dif­fer­ence. Con­sider what happened in the next two years, after the 1966 midterm elec­tions de­pleted Demo­crat­ic ranks and en­larged Re­pub­lic­an ones. LBJ was still the great mas­ter of Con­gress — but without the votes, the re­cord was any­thing but ro­bust. All the ca­jol­ing and per­suad­ing and horse-trad­ing in the world did not mat­ter.

Now briefly con­sider oth­er pres­id­ents. Ron­ald Re­agan was a mas­ter ne­go­ti­at­or, and he has the dis­tinc­tion of hav­ing two ma­jor pieces of le­gis­la­tion, tax re­form and im­mig­ra­tion re­form, en­acted in his second term, without the over­whelm­ing num­bers that John­son en­joyed in 1965-66. What Re­agan did have, just like John­son had on civil rights, was act­ive and eager part­ners from the oth­er party. The drive for tax re­form did not start with Re­agan, but with Demo­crats Bill Brad­ley and Dick Geph­ardt, whose re­form bill be­came the tem­plate for the law that ul­ti­mately passed. They, and Ways and Means Chair­man Dan Ros­ten­kowski, were de­lighted to make their mark in his­tory (and for Brad­ley and Geph­ardt, to ad­vance their pres­id­en­tial am­bi­tions) by work­ing with the lame-duck Re­pub­lic­an pres­id­ent. The same de­sire to craft trans­form­at­ive policy was there for both Alan Simpson and Ron Mazzoli, a Sen­ate Re­pub­lic­an and a House Demo­crat, who put to­geth­er im­mig­ra­tion le­gis­la­tion with lim­ited in­volve­ment by the White House.

As for Bill Clin­ton, he was as polit­ic­ally ad­ept as any pres­id­ent in mod­ern times, and as cha­ris­mat­ic and com­pel­ling as any­one. But the real­ity is that these great tal­ents did not con­vince a single Re­pub­lic­an to sup­port his eco­nom­ic plan in 1993, nor enough Demo­crats to pass the plan for a cru­cial sev­en-plus months; did not stop the Re­pub­lic­ans un­der Speak­er Newt Gin­grich from shut­ting down the gov­ern­ment twice; and did not stop the House to­ward the end of his pres­id­ency from im­peach­ing him on shaky grounds, with no chance of con­vic­tion in the Sen­ate. The brief win­dows of close co­oper­a­tion in 1996, after Gin­grich’s hu­mi­li­ation fol­low­ing the second shut­down, were opened for prag­mat­ic, tac­tic­al reas­ons by Re­pub­lic­ans eager to win a second con­sec­ut­ive term in the ma­jor­ity, and ended shortly after they had ac­com­plished that goal.

When Obama had the num­bers, not as ro­bust as LBJ’s but ro­bust enough, he had a ter­rif­ic re­cord of le­gis­lat­ive ac­com­plish­ments. The 111th Con­gress ranks just be­low the 89th in terms of sig­ni­fic­ant and far-reach­ing en­act­ments, from the com­pon­ents of the eco­nom­ic stim­u­lus plan to the health care bill to Dodd/Frank and cred­it-card re­form. But all were done with either no or min­im­al Re­pub­lic­an sup­port. LBJ and Re­agan had will­ing part­ners from the op­pos­ite party; Obama has had none. Noth­ing that he could have done would have changed the clear, de­lib­er­ate policy of Re­pub­lic­ans unit­ing to op­pose and ob­struct his agenda, that altered long-stand­ing Sen­ate norms to use the fili­buster in ways it had nev­er been em­ployed be­fore, in­clud­ing in the LBJ, Re­agan, and Clin­ton eras, that drew sharp lines of total op­pos­i­tion on policies like health re­form and rais­ing taxes as part of a broad budget deal.

Could Obama have done more to bond with law­makers? Sure, es­pe­cially with mem­bers of his own party, which would help more now, when he is in the throes of second-term blues, than it would have when he achieved re­mark­able party unity in his first two years. But the bru­tal real­ity, in today’s polit­ics, is that LBJ, if he were here now, could not be the LBJ of the Great So­ci­ety years in this en­vir­on­ment. Nobody can, and to de­mand oth­er­wise is both fu­tile and fool­ish.

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