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Obama as the Green Lantern

Obama as the Green Lantern

By Sean Trende - May 22, 2013

There’s been a lot of speculation lately as to why President Obama hasn’t had more success rallying the American people and Congress around his agenda, accompanied by criticism of him for failing to do so. Most of this has come from those who either have or have had a favorable impression of the president. Some of these protestations have been direct and from more liberal quarters, such as Maureen Dowd's recent assertion that it was Obama’s job to get Republicans “to behave,” or the Washington Post editorial board’s complaint in February that the president wasn’t offering sufficient leadership on entitlements. Others have come from more centrist observers, including National Journal’s Ron Fournier, who has noted that great players rise above the normal limitations of the game. This week, he urged Obama to respond aggressively to the spate of White House scandals by shaking up his staff, naming a special prosecutor in the IRS probe and reversing Justice Department policy on leaks investigation, with an apology to the media -- among other actions Fournier said could be announced in a contrite speech to "push the reset button." 

All of these comments draw upon what we might think of as the traditional view of the modern presidency. The great and near-great modern presidents, such as Franklin Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson, and Ronald Reagan, are all remembered as communicators with deep relationships with members of Congress. These qualities enabled them to move bills that many observers thought would be difficult to pass (if not impossible) through the legislative branch. When a president fails to accomplish his goals, it must suggest that he isn’t suitably employing these skills.

Political scientist Brendan Nyhan has coined a mocking phrase (deriving from an earlier Matt Yglesias observation) to summarize this conventional wisdom: Political Green Lanternism. This refers to the famous DC Comics character who receives a power ring from aliens. The hook is that the ring derives its strength from the willpower of its bearer; a normal person won’t be able to accomplish much with it, but someone with strong willpower can all but move mountains.

Nyhan and others rely on some fairly recent political science literature suggesting that the presidency simply doesn’t work this way, and that the powers of the president to persuade are really much more limited than previously thought. The “great persuaders” were successful not so much because of their ability to wield the office’s clout, but rather were gifted with large partisan majorities in Congress and/or a public that was enthusiastically behind their goals.

My own view is somewhat hybrid, but leans more toward the poli-sci take on things: Give LBJ 234 Republicans in the House after the 1964 elections, like Obama has today (rather than the 140 Johnson had to contend with), and much of the Great Society doesn’t happen. Give FDR a bare majority of 220 Democrats in 1933, instead of 313, and much of the New Deal doesn’t pass. Indeed, Roosevelt had 334 House Democrats in 1937, and all it took was a recession to stymie his agenda. (FDR himself was partial to Green Lanternism, assuring nervous aides that once the letters of support started pouring in, opponents of the Third New Deal would be beating a path to the White House door.)

At the same time, though, there’s not much doubt that Johnson’s relationships with senators helped him move legislation along, and there are at least some accounts of the Obama White House suggesting that the president has taken detachment from Congress to new levels.

What really intrigues me, though, is that we’re even having this debate in the first place. There were some muted calls for George W. Bush to engage with the American people as his job approval numbers sank in his second term, but nothing like what we’ve seen with Obama. Even more intriguing is that these calls have been more or less a constant throughout Obama’s terms as president; my first encounter with them came in mid-2009, when a radio host asked me, “What happened to the guy I voted for back in 2008?”

And there, I think, is the answer to why we have this debate, and why I think it is almost a bit unfair to criticize those who wonder why Obama doesn’t engage Congress and the public more in order to accomplish his agenda. Many of the president’s supporters thought they were voting for the Green Lantern in 2008.

Remember, the actual policy differences between Obama, Hillary Clinton, and John Edwards were pretty limited. To help distinguish himself from the pack, and to attack Clinton indirectly, Obama all but dressed up in green tights, claiming that his candidacy would enable us to put old arguments behind us, bring people together, and transform the country.

Here’s an excerpt from his speech announcing his candidacy for president:

“What's stopped us from meeting these challenges is not the absence of sound policies and sensible plans. What's stopped us is the failure of leadership, the smallness of our politics -- the ease with which we're distracted by the petty and trivial, our chronic avoidance of tough decisions, our preference for scoring cheap political points instead of rolling up our sleeves and building a working consensus to tackle big problems.”

Here’s more:

“I know there are those who don't believe we can do all these things. I understand the skepticism. After all, every four years, candidates from both parties make similar promises, and I expect this year will be no different. … This campaign has to be about reclaiming the meaning of citizenship, restoring our sense of common purpose, and realizing that few obstacles can withstand the power of millions of voices calling for change. … That’s why I'm in this race. Not just to hold an office, but to gather with you to transform a nation.”

This is from his Jefferson-Jackson speech in Iowa:

“That’s why I’m in this race. That’s why I am running for the presidency of the United States of America -- to offer change that we can believe in.

“That’s why I’m asking you to stand with me, that’s why I’m asking you to caucus for me, that’s why I am asking you to stop settling for what the cynics say we have to accept. In this election -- in this moment -- let us reach for what we know is possible. A nation healed. A world repaired. An America that believes again.”

His speech after clinching the Democratic nomination:

“Despite what the good senator from Arizona said tonight, I have seen people of differing views and opinions find common cause many times during my two decades in public life, and I have brought many together myself.

“In our country, I have found that this cooperation happens not because we agree on everything, but because behind all the labels and false divisions and categories that define us; beyond all the petty bickering and point-scoring in Washington, Americans are a decent, generous, compassionate people, united by common challenges and common hopes. And every so often, there are moments which call on that fundamental goodness to make this country great again.”

His nomination acceptance speech:

“For 18 long months, you have stood up, one by one, and said ‘Enough’ to the politics of the past. You understand that, in this election, the greatest risk we can take is to try the same, old politics with the same, old players and expect a different result.”

His opponents did try to point out, in so many words, the limitations of his Green Lanternism. But:

“Don’t tell me words don’t matter. ‘I have a dream’ -- just words. ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal’ -- just words. ‘We have nothing to fear but fear itself’ -- just words, just speeches. It’s true that speeches don’t solve all problems, but what is also true is that if we can’t inspire our country to believe again, then it doesn’t matter how many policies and plans we have, and that is why I’m running for president of the United States of America, and that’s why we just won eight elections straight, because the American people want to believe in change again. Don’t tell me words don’t matter!”

But maybe he didn’t really believe this himself.

Richard Wolffe, in Renegade: “ ‘You know, I actually believe my own bullshit,’ ” he told me with a big smile.”

We could go on (Obama telling former Arkansas Rep. Marion Berry that the difference between 1994 and 2010 was “you’ve got me”; Obama assuring Olympia Snowe that if people tried to burn her at the stake for her health care vote, he’d be there with a fire hose). But you get the idea.

The notion that Obama could provide unique leadership, rise above the old political rules, end the partisan bickering that had consumed the nation, and transform the country was the central theme of his presidential campaign. For a lot of Democrats (in the primaries) and Independents -- and more than a few Republicans -- the typical laundry list of policy initiatives really had little to do with why they voted for Obama. It was the promise of a different kind of president in Washington, someone who was promising to move us beyond the bruising battles and polarization of the Bush and Clinton years, that really captivated them and drew them in.

In essence, Dowd and Fournier and countless others who have launched similar complaints are asking, “Why aren’t we getting what we were promised?” They believe in the power of his speeches and his leadership skills because they were led to believe in them. Political science offers a perfectly plausible explanation that answers their questions. But given the tenor of the 2008 campaign, people can probably be forgiven if they don’t accept it as an excuse. 

Sean Trende is senior elections analyst for RealClearPolitics. He is a co-author of the 2014 Almanac of American Politics and author of The Lost Majority. He can be reached at strende@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @SeanTrende.

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