Sorry, Pundits: Obama Is Not a Superhero

We've been hearing a lot about the so-called "Green Lantern Theory of Presidential Power" lately. What does it mean?

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We've been hearing a lot about the Green Lantern lately. No, not that Green Lantern; he's just a guy who plays for the Celtics. And no, this isn't about a sequel to the 2011 Ryan Reynolds film, because in what universe does that seem like a good idea to a studio that wants to make money?

This is about the so-called "Green Lantern Theory of Presidential Power," and the term's been thrown about a lot recently. To wit:

Greg Sargent, The Washington Post:

The Times piece, which comes after Maureen Dowd made a similar argument over the weekend, traffics heavily in what a lot of folks like to describe as the Green Lantern Theory of Presidential Power. The thesis appears to be that Toomey-Manchin failed because Obama failed to put enough pressure on red state Democratic Senators like Mark Begich, and that this bodes ill for the rest of his presidency.

Ezra Klein, The Washington Post:

Fournier and other adherents of the Green Lantern Theory of the Presidency are caught between a question they can’t answer and an answer they can’t abide. They don’t know exactly what Obama — or any other president — could do to overcome the structural polarization that’s cracking Congress.

Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog:

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.

The term isn't new -- I believe it was coined by Matthew Yglesias back in 2006, and Brendan Nyhan wrote a bit more about it in 2009. Basically, it's the tendency of pundits to blame everything that happens (or doesn't happen) in the government on whether or not the President had the willpower to make it so.

As Jonathan Chait explains, getting laws passed is a numbers game. Republicans tend to vote one way and Democrats, the other. Whoever has the majority will win the vote, regardless of how many times Obama reads The Secret. But many pundits would rather turn Washington's happenings into a narrative arc, with all the familiar tropes and motifs. Joseph Campbell would love it; people looking for a deep understanding of how the government works (or doesn't) find it lacking. Obama's probably not much of a fan, either. But they're much simpler and more familiar for pundits to use than, as Benen writes, "Party, ideology, policy, elections, history, legislative procedures."

Maybe that'll change now that there's been an outpouring of Green Lantern-shaming this week. Or maybe we can will it to happen?

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.