The White House’s “We The People” petition feature has long been a favorite of mine. For those unfamiliar with the initiative, regular ol’ Americans can submit questions and/or ideas online; the public can vote on its favorites; and if enough people endorse the petition, the Obama administration will offer an official response. It occasionally leads to actual policy changes.
It’s not easy for a petition to succeed – the minimum threshold is 100,000 endorsements – but even when an entry doesn’t make it all the way, it’s interesting to see which petitions generate interest, if for no other reason because it offers a peek into what’s on some Americans’ minds.
This week, for example, a petition was submitted with this headline: “Remove Ted Cruz from position for NASA oversight of the Subcommittee on Space, Science and Competitiveness.” The rest of the text reads:
Ted Cruz is not qualified to hold position to oversee NASA or any other Science based Committee. He is scientifically illiterate, and constantly shows bias against scientific proof and facts against his own personally held religion and beliefs.This is not conducive for the strengthening of scientific research or discoveries. If he stays in this position he will most assuredly aid in cutting funding for programs for which will help the United States and the world in furthering technology for the benefit of mankind.We the people demand a person worthy of the position and who will work towards optimizing NASA for scientific discoveries be placed in this position in Ted Cruz’s stead.
This was submitted on Monday, Aug. 12. As I type, it’s up to nearly 30,000 signatures.
The problem is not with the sentiment; I’m not thrilled with Cruz’s new role, either. Rather, this caught my eye because it’s a good example of well-intentioned people getting confused about civics and institutional constraints.
It’s like the “Green Lantern Theory” applied to the public, instead of Beltway pundits.
Under the “Green Lantern Theory of Presidential Power,” a phrase made popular by Greg Sargent, the president is assumed to have supernatural “leadership” powers that he can use to accomplish practically anything – and as such, if a president isn’t getting the results he seeks, it must somehow be his fault. It’s similar to Ron Fournier’s oft-repeated argument that practically any problem, no matter the circumstances, can be solved if only Obama would “lead” more.
But the public sometimes stumbles into the same mistake. I remember talking to someone in 2012 who said he wouldn’t vote for Obama because he hadn’t signed any new jobs bills into law. I noted that passing bills is Congress’ responsibility, but the guy had no interest in process. “The buck stops in the Oval Office,” he said, unaware of how little sense that made.
In the case of this petition, nearly 30,000 people apparently believe it’s up to the White House to change subcommittee assignments in a Republican-run Senate. Does Obama have any control over congressional committees? No. Did the president choose Ted Cruz to oversee NASA? Of course not. Even if he wanted to, could Obama give the Texas senator a demotion? Absolutely not.
And yet, there’s the petition and its tens of thousands of backers. Is it any wonder the public often blames the president when things go wrong in Washington? For many Americans, there’s a sense that Obama is in charge of the entire federal policymaking apparatus, so it must be his fault when nothing gets done in D.C.
When people get confused by the basics of American civics, the results aren’t pretty.
For what it’s worth, Cruz is aware of the concerns about his new post, and he wants everyone to know “that he supports NASA’s contributions to science and discovery, and that they should not fear his appointment to lead the subcommittee that oversees the space agency.”