How Obama Became the Superhero of Excuses

Meant to mock president’s critics, the ‘Green Lantern’ theory underscores the gap between his promise and his performance.

In this photo taken by a government photographer for Halloween 2012, President Obama pretends to be caught in Spider-Man's web as he greets Nicholas Tamarin, 3.
National Journal
Ron Fournier
May 21, 2014, 9:06 a.m.

You helped elect an un­tested pres­id­en­tial can­did­ate, a man al­most as lib­er­al as you. He prom­ised to heal the oceans, make health care an in­ali­en­able right, and trans­form Wash­ing­ton’s tox­ic cul­ture. You mocked Re­pub­lic­ans, in­de­pend­ents, and squishy Demo­crats who had the au­da­city to cri­ti­cize your guy, much less doubt the in­ev­it­ab­il­ity of his vic­tory. Pres­id­ent Obama won — twice — and then didn’t live up to any­body’s ex­pect­a­tions, in­clud­ing his own.

What do you do? Well, if you’re Ezra Klein and a co­ter­ie of in­flex­ibly pro­gress­ive pun­dits, you re­pur­pose an at­tack used against Pres­id­ent George W. Bush’s bom­bast­ic ap­proach to geo­pol­it­ics. You call any­body who ques­tions Obama’s lead­er­ship style a Green Lan­tern­ist. In a post for Vox stretch­ing bey­ond 2,500 words, Klein makes his case against Obama crit­ics.

“Pres­id­ents con­sist­ently over­prom­ise and un­der­deliv­er,” he be­gins, a fair start. Surely, the ed­it­or-in-chief of Vox is go­ing to make the ob­vi­ous point that pres­id­ents and pres­id­en­tial can­did­ates should know enough about the polit­ic­al pro­cess (in­clud­ing the lim­its on the ex­ec­ut­ive branch) to avoid such a breach of trust.

Klein is a data guy. He must know that the pub­lic’s faith in gov­ern­ment and polit­ics is on a dec­ades-long slide, a dan­ger­ous trend due in no small part to the fact that can­did­ates make prom­ises they know they can’t keep. In Wash­ing­ton, we call it pan­der­ing. In the rest of the coun­try, it’s called a lie. Klein yawns.

What they need to say to get elec­ted far out­paces what they can ac­tu­ally do in of­fice. Pres­id­ent Obama is a per­fect ex­ample. His 2008 cam­paign didn’t just prom­ise health care re­form, a stim­u­lus bill, and fin­an­cial reg­u­la­tion. It also prom­ised a cap-and-trade bill to lim­it car­bon emis­sions, com­pre­hens­ive im­mig­ra­tion re­form, gun con­trol, and much more. His pres­id­ency, he said, would be change Amer­ic­an could be­lieve in. But it’s clear now that much of the change he prom­ised isn’t go­ing to hap­pen — in large part be­cause he doesn’t have the power to make it hap­pen.

Now, wait. A Har­vard-trained law­yer and con­sti­tu­tion­al schol­ar like Obama didn’t stumble in­to the 2008 pres­id­en­tial cam­paign un­aware of the bal­ance of powers, the po­lar­iz­a­tion of polit­ics, the right­ward march of the GOP, and oth­er struc­tur­al lim­its on the pres­id­ency. He made those prom­ises be­cause he thought those goals were neither un­reas­on­able nor un­at­tain­able. Either that, or he was ly­ing.

No­tice that the broken prom­ises are pawned off to non­hu­man forms (“his 2008 cam­paign” pledged … “It also prom­ised … “) rather than Obama him­self. The verbal gym­nastics are an early hint that the main pur­pose of the es­say is to shel­ter Obama from blame. There’s so much more.

You would think voters in gen­er­al and pro­fes­sion­al me­dia pun­dits in par­tic­u­lar would, by now, be wise to this pat­tern. But they’re not.

Ac­tu­ally, we may not be as smart as Klein but we’re wise to this pat­tern of broken prom­ises. We get it. We just don’t ac­cept it. Why does Klein? Why do so many oth­er pro­gress­ives and Obama apo­lo­gists settle for so little?

Each dis­ap­point­ment wounds anew. Each un­checked item on the To Do list is a sur­prise. Be­lief in the pres­id­ency seems to be en­tirely ro­bust to the in­ab­il­ity of any par­tic­u­lar pres­id­ent to make good on their prom­ises. And so the cri­ti­cism is al­ways the same: Why can’t the pres­id­ent be more like the Green Lan­tern?

There it is, the straw man. Rather than con­duct the im­port­ant de­bate about the bal­ance of powers and the struc­ture of gov­ern­ment in the 21st cen­tury, some lib­er­als prefer to dis­tort views that don’t af­firm their own. Nobody ex­pects the pres­id­ent to be a su­per­hero. Most of us would settle for one who is ef­fect­ive, en­gaged, em­path­et­ic, and trans­par­ent about how he or she con­ducts the people’s busi­ness. Simple, not su­per.

Ac­cord­ing to Brendan Nyhan, the Dart­mouth polit­ic­al sci­ent­ist who coined the term, the Green Lan­tern The­ory of the Pres­id­ency is “the be­lief that the pres­id­ent can achieve any polit­ic­al or policy ob­ject­ive if only he tries hard enough or uses the right tac­tics.” In oth­er words, the Amer­ic­an pres­id­ent is func­tion­ally all-power­ful, and whenev­er he can’t get something done, it’s be­cause he’s not try­ing hard enough, or not try­ing smart enough.

Nyhan fur­ther sep­ar­ates it in­to two vari­ants: “the Re­agan ver­sion of the Green Lan­tern The­ory and the LBJ ver­sion of the Green Lan­tern The­ory.” The Re­agan ver­sion, he says, holds that “if you only com­mu­nic­ate well enough the pub­lic will rally to your side.” The LBJ ver­sion says that “if the pres­id­ent only tried harder to win over Con­gress they would vote through his le­gis­lat­ive agenda.” In both cases, Nyhan ar­gues, “we’ve been sold a false bill of goods.”

That is a good sum­mary of a the­ory that, in fair­ness, raises im­port­ant is­sues about the pub­lic’s un­der­stand­ing of the pres­id­ency. Journ­al­ists should re­mind read­ers that Con­gress is the first branch of gov­ern­ment, and the Su­preme Court is an­oth­er check on the ex­ec­ut­ive branch. No fair-minded per­son would ab­solve the Re­pub­lic­an House of blame for Wash­ing­ton’s dys­func­tion.

The Amer­ic­an pub­lic is not stu­pid, at least not as dumb as Klein, Nyhan, and oth­er Green Lan­tern ac­cusers must think. Voters know the pres­id­ent isn’t “all-power­ful.” They don’t think he wears a cape be­neath his suit. They cer­tainly know, per­haps bet­ter than any of us in Wash­ing­ton, that good things don’t al­ways come to those who work hard.

The Green Lan­tern Corps is a fic­tion­al, in­ter­galactic peace­keep­ing en­tity that ex­ists in DC Com­ics. Mem­bers of the Corps get a power ring that’s cap­able of cre­at­ing green en­ergy pro­jec­tions of al­most un­lim­ited power. The only con­straint is the will­power and ima­gin­a­tion of the ring’s wear­er ….

I can’t tell wheth­er this is a nerdy riff meant to en­ter­tain his like-minded read­ers or a sar­cast­ic rant in­ten­ded to in­sult the rest of us. Maybe it’s both. Did I men­tion that Klein is a smart dude?

The Found­ing Fath­ers were re­belling against an out-of-con­trol mon­arch. So they con­struc­ted a polit­ic­al sys­tem with a power­ful le­gis­lature and a re­l­at­ively weak ex­ec­ut­ive. The res­ult is that the U.S.  pres­id­ent has little form­al power to make Con­gress do any­thing. He can’t force Con­gress to vote on a bill. He can’t force Con­gress to pass a bill. And even if he ve­toes a bill Con­gress can simply over­turn his veto. So in dir­ect con­front­a­tions with Con­gress — and that de­scribes much of Amer­ic­an polit­ics these days — the pres­id­ent has few op­tions.

If you paid at­ten­tion in high school civics class, you can skip this part. Same, too, for the long stretches on Lyn­don John­son, Ron­ald Re­agan, and a no-duh study about how when a pres­id­ent takes a po­s­i­tion on an is­sue the op­pos­ing party be­comes far more likely to take the op­pos­ite po­s­i­tion. No col­lege term pa­per is com­plete without his­tor­ic­al filler and a study doc­u­ment­ing the ob­vi­ous 

But please don’t miss the part where Klein quotes New York Times colum­nist Maur­een Dowd and me cri­ti­ciz­ing Obama’s lead­er­ship style and skills.

This kind of thing both lets Con­gress off the hook and con­fuses Amer­ic­ans about where the power ac­tu­ally lies in Amer­ic­an polit­ics — and thus about who to hold ac­count­able.

Again, it’s only in Klein’s ima­gin­a­tion that any­body be­lieves in “this kind of thing” — that a pres­id­ent has su­per­powers or de­serves sin­gu­lar blame. Oddly, while our ig­nor­ance is cent­ral to his at­tack, Klein con­cedes that we un­der­stand that a con­sti­tu­tion­al bal­ance of powers lim­its the pres­id­ency: “Green Lan­tern the­or­ists don’t deny any of this.”

The in­con­veni­ent truth is that Klein’s kind of think­ing lets the pres­id­ent off the hook, un­ac­count­able for prom­ises broken and op­por­tun­it­ies lost. Rather than change Wash­ing­ton’s cul­ture of po­lar­iz­a­tion, zero-sum game polit­ics, and spin, Obama sur­rendered to it al­most im­me­di­ately. On health in­sur­ance re­form, gov­ern­ment debt, and loosen­ing im­mig­ra­tion laws, Obama shares blame with ob­stin­ate House Re­pub­lic­ans for fum­bling po­ten­tial com­prom­ise. On cli­mate change and gun con­trol, Obama knew (or should have known) his rhet­or­ic was set­ting up voters for dis­ap­point­ment. Rather than roll back Bush-era ter­ror­ism pro­grams that curb civil liber­ties, Obama deepened them.

The launch of the Af­ford­able Care Act and the worsen­ing of con­di­tions at the Vet­er­ans Af­fairs De­part­ment are em­blem­at­ic of Obama’s in­at­ten­tion to the hard work of gov­ern­ing. He is slow to fire poor-serving Cab­in­et mem­bers and quick to dis­miss con­tro­ver­sies as “phony scan­dals.” To the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion, trans­par­ency is a mere talk­ing point. The great irony of his pro­gress­ive pres­id­ency: Demo­crats privately ad­mit that Obama has done as much to un­der­mine the pub­lic’s faith in gov­ern­ment as his GOP pre­de­cessor. The Green Lan­tern The­ory is an ex­cuse for fail­ure.

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