Some political scientists have created “The Green Lantern Theory of the Presidency.” (For those uninitiated in comic book lore, Green Lantern is a superhero who has a magic lantern that talks to him and gives him super powers through a magic ring. He’s much more powerful than Batman, Spiderman or The Hulk.)
The theory is that the President is equally powerful in the political arena, capable of achieving any accomplishment he tries. Fed by campaign rhetoric, media commentary and internet hype, it has subtly taken hold in the public’s mind and distorts our perception of reality. Consider the following:
From Maureen Dowd, on Obama’s relationship with Congress: “It is his job to get them to behave. The job of the former community organizer and self-styled uniter is to somehow get this dunderheaded Congress, which is mind-bendingly awful, to do the stuff he wants them to do. It’s called leadership.”
In other words, Green Lantern, wave your magic ring at them.
From Ron Fournier, on how Obama should build consensus: “He could talk to the media and the public more often with a more compelling and sustained message. He could build enduring relationships in Washington rather than being so blatantly transactional with his time. He could work harder, and with more empathy, on Capitol Hill to find ‘win-win’ opportunities with Republicans.”
In other words, Green Lantern, dazzle everyone with your brilliance. It worked for President Josiah Bartlet on “West Wing.”
This sounds silly because it is. The “cult of personality” that has grown up around the president – and some other political figures - is overblown. Situations and surprises beyond a president’s control intrude on every administration and there never has been, nor ever will be, a Green Lantern Presidency. The Founders deliberately created a government that prevents it.
George Washington could have been king if he had wanted, but under the Constitution’s system of checks and balances, he had to become a politician instead – a brilliant one, to be sure, but no Green Lantern.
Abraham Lincoln took unprecedented power upon himself as Commander in Chief during the Civil War, but he still had to cajole, compromise and make political deals in order to get the Thirteenth Amendment passed while it was going on.
Franklin Roosevelt had an extraordinarily free hand to do whatever he thought necessary to fix things during the Great Depression, but his “magic ring” lost its power in his second term when he over-reached.
I’m not saying that presidents don’t matter very much or that they should not be held personably accountable for their decisions; they obviously do and obviously should. I’m saying we have become too personal in attaching blame or praise. The left won’t support anything that doesn’t produce the headline, “Obama triumphant!” and the right won’t support anything that doesn’t produce the headline, “Obama humiliated!” This obscures careful analysis of the long-term consequences of the actions being taken.
My favorite quote on how over-personalization of political issues gets in the way of such analysis comes from Tom Friedman of the New York Times. Attacked because he said something supportive of the Bush Administration, he responded, “There are some things that are true even if George W. Bush believes them.”12 comments on this story
This is not a call for giving presidents a free pass. I have been critical of all the presidents with whom I served and I have strong views about what I see as the errors of the current one. It is simply a reminder that presidents are human beings who make mistakes, not comic book heroes who don’t. Expectations and judgments should be adjusted accordingly.
Robert Bennett, former U.S. senator from Utah, is a part-time teacher, researcher and lecturer at the University of Utah’s Hinckley Institute of Politics.