As we navigate another period of fiscal wrangling in Congress, pundit demands that the president provide some sort of “leadership” to overcome divided government (presumably brainwashing Republicans to relax the commitment to “conservative principle” that they’ve spent the last three years administering oaths to each other never to do, or just caving to them entirely) are again reaching a fever-pitch. It’s time once again to listen to Brendan Nyhan, who has described this peculiar belief in the magical powers of the president probably better than anyone, to remind us this is just nuts:
One of the recurring themes in commentary on national politics is the demand for the president to change politics as we know it to accomplish some otherwise unattainable political goal. If only President Obama tried a little harder, some critics claim, he could magically overcome legislative obstacles to gun control or clean energy legislation. I’ve dubbed this fantasy the Green Lantern Theory of the Presidency in honor of the comic book superheroes whose abilities to use their “power rings” depend on their willpower.
This habit is particularly inapt at the moment, since the only modification of the sequester Republicans are open to is one that shifts spending reductions to the very programs the White House used all its leverage to exclude.
The media should instead focus greater attention on Congress, which writes the tax and budget legislation that determines how the federal government spends its money. Obama has relatively little leverage over the Republicans who control the House of Representatives, almost all of whom represent districts he lost in 2012.
Obama himself offered his own mocking version of the Green Lantern Theory today:
Asked why he doesn’t just sit down with congressional leaders until a sequestration deal is reached, President Obama said Friday that he can’t lock lawmakers in a room.
“I am not a dictator, I’m the President,” Obama said. “So, ultimately, if Mitch McConnell or John Boehner say, we need to go to catch a plane, I can’t have Secret Service block the doorway.”
Obama added: “I know that this has been some of the conventional wisdom that’s been floating around Washington that somehow, even though most people agree that I’m being reasonable, that most people agree I’m presenting a fair deal. The fact that they don’t take it means that I should somehow, you know, do a Jedi mindmeld with these folks and convince them to do what’s right. Well, you know, they’re elected. We have a constitutional system of government.”
He probably meant “Vulcan Mindmeld,” but you get the idea.
Nyan suggests that the president may have fed the belief in his magical powers by claiming at one point last that losing another presidential election could “break the fever” gripping the GOP. Predictably, that didn’t happen.
It’s increasingly clear what we really need are mechanisms to make the functioning of a working majority in Washington a lot more practicable. Thus, I’m increasingly convinced that Harry Reid’s refusal to undertake serious and unilateral filibuster reform represents a huge lost opportunity. Barring that, it’s going to take an electoral landslide of great magnitude to end divided government. Either way, the country should not have to wait for the Republican Party to find (or even want to find) some way to elude the grip of “movement conservatives,” or for the president to assume superhero powers.