Clearly, the phenomenon needs a name. There are so many Beltway pundits blaming President Obama for Republican intransigence so often – for reasons that vary from strange to stupid – that there must be a label to describe this runaway meme.
Greg Sargent has been using a name that makes a lot of sense: the Green Lantern Theory of Presidential Power. (I’ve always been more or a Marvel guy than a D.C. guy, but never mind.) Even if you’ve never heard of Green Lantern, it’s easy enough to understand the concept: Beltway pundits seem to think the president has supernatural “leadership” powers that he can use to bend Congress to his will. Party, ideology, policy, elections, history, legislative procedures – none of this matters under the Green Lantern Theory of Presidential Power. The pundits believe Obama has this magical ability, and if Congress is failing to enact the White House’s agenda, it’s necessarily proof that the president is failing to use his mystical powers effectively.
As the argument goes, President Obama is the Man In Charge – of the executive branch, of Congress, of the legislative process, of all federal policymaking – and if he’s not getting his way, well, he’s the one wearing the supernatural ring, so it’s only fair to blame him.
Why does anyone in professional political commentary believe this child-like Green Lantern Theory? I honestly have no idea, but the number of pundits fully embracing the bizarre idea appears to be growing.
Peggy Noonan, today:
“[I]f you’re a leader you can lead right past it.”
Maureen Dowd, Wednesday:
“Actually, it is [Obama’s] job to get [congressional Republicans] to behave. The job of the former community organizer and self-styled uniter is to somehow get this dunderheaded Congress, which is mind-bendingly awful, to do the stuff he wants them to do. It’s called leadership.”
Ron Fournier, Wednesday:
“Great presidents rise above circumstance…. Obama needs a coach to look him in the eyes and say, ‘Mr. President, I’m not excusing the other team. They suck. But you need to beat them, sir. That’s your job.’”
Dana Milbank, Tuesday:
“Obama is correct about the dysfunction, and the difficulty of passing even uncontroversial bills. But his stance was frustratingly passive, as if what happens in Congress is out of his hands. It’s the president’s job to lead, and to bang heads if necessary.”
This is really only a small sampling, and it only reflects the pundits who’ve been making the argument in print. Many more have been pushing the same Green Lantern Theory in broadcast media, too.
I don’t imagine I’ll persuade those who believe the Green Lantern Theory to change course, but I hope they’ll keep a few simple observations in mind.
1. Be specific. Media professionals who use their platforms to give the president advice – “lead right past it,” “bang heads,” “somehow get Congress to do stuff” – should be prepared to fill in the gaps. “Lead more” is not an example of serious, mature commentary on public affairs. “Here’s what the president should do to get his agenda implemented….” is more constructive. Those who believe there’s more Obama can do should actually say what more Obama can do.
2. Be mindful of history. Obama has tried schmoozing. He’s tried embracing Republican ideas. He’s tried bringing Republicans onto his cabinet. He’s tried pushing ideas that his base hates. He’s tried meeting Republicans more than half-way. Republicans don’t seem to give a damn and continue to refuse to compromise. With that in mind, constructive commentary won’t blame him for failing to try to get something done.
3. Recognize how different the status quo is. Those who believe there are two mainstream political parties that should be able to find some common ground on the major issues of the day are mistaken. Congressional Republicans are quantifiably radical, and the abandonment of congressional norms and procedures have reached a level unseen in American history. To argue, “Other presidents seem to have been more effective in working with rivals” is to overlook the fact that there is no modern American precedent for what’s become of the Republican Party.
4. Acknowledge the burden of proof. When Fournier was asked on msnbc yesterday what the president should do to “lead” that he isn’t already doing, he said, “Let me turn that question back on you.” No. Wrong. The burden is on those who believe the Green Lantern Theory to justify its power, not those of us who believe in Civics 101 to prove them wrong.
5. Appreciate how happy you’re making Republicans. GOP policymakers are ignoring popular will, abusing the rules, undermining public institutions and the economy, and refusing to compromise, govern, or even act like responsible grown-ups. Pundits know this, and proceed to blame Obama anyway. They should probably pause one of these days to realize that they’re doing Republicans an enormous favor – what incentive do Republicans have to be responsible if they know the president they hate will be blamed by the political media establishment for their own intransigence?