Sunday, June 08, 2014

The Green Lantern and presidential heroics

Readers of the endless stream of pundit verbiage about the political stalemate in Washington have probably been exposed to -- and chastised for naively adhering to -- "the Green Lantern theory of the presidency." What's that?

Ezra Klein, late of the Wapo and now of Vox explains the concept like this:
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.

... Why do so many people believe in the Green Lantern Theory of the Presidency?

One reason is that even as the US executive is structurally weak he's perceptually strong. "The heroic narrative of the presidency dominates media coverage," Nyhan says. It also dominates culture.
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:
The president is the central player in the American political order. ...The American system of self-government thus comes to focus in the presidency -- "the vital place of action in the system," as Woodrow Wilson put it. Henry Adams, himself the great-grandson and grandson of presidents as well as the most brilliant of American historians, said that the American president "resembles the commander of a ship at sea. He must have a helm to grasp, a course to steer, a port to seek." The men in the White House (thus far only men, alas) in steering their chosen courses have shaped our destiny as a nation.

Great presidents possess, or are possessed by, a vision of an ideal America. Their passion, as they grasp the helm, is to set the ship of state on the right course toward the port they seek. ...

"All of our great presidents," said Franklin D. Roosevelt, "were leaders of thought at a time when certain ideas in the life of the nation had to be clarified." So Washington incarnated the idea of federal union, Jefferson and Jackson the idea of democracy, Lincoln union and freedom, Cleveland rugged honesty. Theodore Roosevelt and Wilson, said FDR, were both "moral leaders, each in his own way and his own time, who used the presidency as a pulpit."

To succeed, presidents must not only have a port to seek but they must convince Congress and the electorate that it is a port worth seeking. Politics in a democracy is ultimately an educational process, an adventure in persuasion and consent. Every president stands in Theodore Roosevelt's bully pulpit.

... The greatest presidents in the scholars' rankings, Washington, Lincoln, and Franklin Roosevelt, were leaders who confronted and overcame the republic's greatest crises. ... Still, even in the absence of first-order crisis, forceful ind persuasive presidents -- Jefferson, Jackson, Theodore Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan-are able to impose their own priorities on the country.
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.

1 comment:

Rain Trueax said...

When Obama was elected the first time, he said it would need to be a joint effort to do things. It was 'we' not 'me' and I think that's where the failure has been. Congress is much moved by dollars but also public opinion when it's rabid. Too often Americans are easily seduced by slick ads and diverted from thinking about their own real needs. I don't blame Obama. In fact, I think, given what he said he hoped to do, he did well. He does sometimes fall into the trap of also thinking he can do it all which is usually when he has it backfire on him. He tries more than most to get outside the created partisan bubble but that's difficult for them with the safety concerns.

To me the bigger problem he faces is the division in the nation. How can any president on either side get a lot done when Americans can't agree on what that would be? Americans have been proud of liking to create gridlock as they fear government will do things they don't want. What gridlock means is we are paying for them to be there and hoping they will do nothing at least on the big issues because they might do what the 'other' side wants and then we'll be mad. XL Pipeline and Immigration are only two such issues where you read a right or left wing site and get totally different views on what should be done.

Too bad we can't elect a president and then let the Congress understand their responsibility is to help him do the things in the platform for which he was elected-- unless, of course, it is against the Constitution or damaging Civil Rights or... ;)

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