Ezra Klein, late of the Wapo and now of Vox explains the concept like this:
Klein goes on to insist that those who adopt the Green Lantern theory fail to understand or appreciate both what presidents do accomplish and to understand where the much of the fault lies (Congress) when their accomplishments are inconsistent with their proclaimed intentions.
Readers of this blog know that I've been reading The Founding Fathers (American Presidents), edited by the eminent historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. It would be more accurate to say that I have been listening to 42 hours, consisting of four short biographies of the first four presidents, by different and quite individual authors. This mode of reading also means that I have now heard Schlesinger's introduction to the series read four times.
And all I could think was that Schlesinger was a Green Lanternist.
Here are some excerpts from that boosterish introduction:
My emphasis. Now maybe Schlesinger is just promoting his book series; after all, he is touting books about presidents. But I suspect this historian (he died in 2007) really did believe that the better presidents overcame the structural limits of the office through education and persuasion, the bully pulpit, thus assembling popular democratic consent to their aims.
This realization led me to ask myself: are there elements in our current situation that diminish this President's ability to educate and persuade so profoundly that we must mock our own belief in his powers by reference to a cartoon character?
Well that isn't so hard. As a Black man who succeeded through his own talent, the President is a suspicious character to be occupying his office. I mean, he is not what a president was supposed to look like! (He doesn't look anything like the Green Lantern, does he? He's "a tall, skinny guy with big ears," not a white hunk.) Furthermore, lacking the assets of family money or privilege, a lot of how he got where he is was by successful education and persuasion. He wrote books. He introduced himself to the nation through a visionary speech about what sort of nation we are. When it looked as if his presidential campaign might founder on the shoals of white racial anxiety in the Reverend Wright affair, he managed to talk persuasively to the nation about race. That's not allowed -- especially by a Black man. This county is frightened by Black men, not persuaded.
In office, much of the country has overcome shock at his novelty and he's getting the full treatment a Black man gets in this country: disbelief, lies, baseless suspicion, groundless fear ... None of this is a surprise: he came up through this barrage; too many of us create it without premeditation or much thought. We may have thought, since he came to us through persuasion, that he'd be able to continue to utilize it for power. But no.
Obama's beleaguered circumstances provide an environment in which the Green Lantern theory seems self-evident. Of course he can't get much done; that's just the structure of the constitutional system. The political scientists must be right that those who look for more from him are stupidly naive.
Or, perhaps, Schlesinger's historically informed Green Lanternism also captures something true about U.S. presidents and our political system. Though race gives the vitriol aimed at Obama a particular cast, history certainly shows that most presidents who sought to be more than caretakers attracted pretty venomous opposition. We forget, even if we've lived though it or even contributed to it. (I'm thinking of my own vilification of Lyndon Johnson during the Vietnam war.)
And yet some presidents have been able to translate their beliefs, though education and persuasion, as well as smart manipulation of the system, into lasting ideological underpinnings of the country. Changed and highly charged new ideas have made this a different nation, from Lincoln's unbreakable union of the states, through Roosevelt's government for the public welfare, to Reagan's bastion of individualist market capitalism. Schlesinger's list of our more persuasive presidents, quoted above, seems a true one.
I have to wonder whether contemporary academics and pundits are so attached the Green Lantern theory because it paints a gloss of science around what is actually merely an acute, immediate, time-constrained situation. In general, the social sciences -- poli sci, sociology, especially economics -- are suckers for theory that elevates applied observation into something like replicable "science." But reality is messy and particular to particular moments in time.
Not all presidents have been so constrained as the present one; in the future, historians will tease out the particular constraints of Obama's situation -- and be better able to see his actual accomplishments and actual failings. The sense that there is more to Obama's presidency than our investment in a cartoonish notion of super heroic presidential power will likely prove true. We're too close to see all of how his presidency is changing the national trajectory, if at all. And concurrently, right now, we need a more realistic grasp of how little structural power presidents are allowed by the Constitution and political history.