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)

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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