The Green Lantern Theory of Presidential Power, a continuing series
If there’s anything interesting about the progressive response to President Obama’s strategy (or lack thereof) on BP and climate change, it’s that its virtually identical to the progressive response to the president’s strategy on health care reform. As with health care, progressives are angry with Obama over his “unwillingness” to get to business and demand legislation from Congress, as if the only barrier to action is President Obama’s will. Here, for instance, is Rachel Maddow’s fantasy version of the speech Obama should have given on Tuesday:
The United States Senate will pass an energy bill. This year. The Senate version of the bill will not expand offshore drilling. The earlier targets in that bill for energy efficiency and for renewable energy-sources will be doubled or tripled.
If Senators use the filibuster to stop the bill, we will pass it by reconciliation, which still ensures a majority vote. If there are elements of the bill that cannot procedurally be passed by reconciliation, if those elements can be instituted by executive order, I will institute them by executive order.
As Jon Chait rightly notes, this is fantastical. Reconciliation is meant for bills that affect the budget in a fairly direct way. The climate change bill doesn’t come close to meeting that standard, and even if it did, Democrats didn’t write reconciliation instructions for the climate change bill. In the real world, you couldn’t pass any of the climate bill through reconciliation, and if you tried, you’d almost certainly have large portions struck out by the Senate parliamentarian. What’s more, the President can’t simply make laws through executive order; insofar that executive orders have force, it’s because they are usually made in pursuance with certain acts of Congress, some of which specifically delegate discretionary power to the president. If Maddow’s “president” can make laws and override Congress, then it’s no wonder she’s disappointed with Obama, who as an actual United States president, can do neither.
Chait smartly points out that this “liberal despair” comes mainly from a cultish view of the presidency. In this view, Congress is a near-ancillary actor, and all initiative and all action comes from the White House. When bills fail, it’s because the president didn’t try hard enough (or didn’t care). Of course, that’s ridiculous; when it comes to domestic policy, U.S presidents are fairly weak actors, and have to contend with a host of constraints, limitations and competing priorities. As Jonathan Bernstein has noted again and again, the president is weak, really.
During the Bush years, Matt Yglesias coined the phrase “Green Lantern theory of Geopolitics” to mock conservatives who believed that willpower was the only limitation in international relations. For those of you who didn’t read comic books growing up, the Green Lantern is a superhero whose ring grants him near limitless power, limited only by the power of his imagination. There are a lot of otherwise-smart liberals who believe that the president is a member of the Green Lantern corps, and that the only thing keeping his agenda from passage is force of will.
For what it’s worth, I think a few things are at play in this warped liberal view of the president (and really, it’s not just liberals, most Americans see the president as some sort of Dune-esque God Emperor): first, there’s simply no popular recognition that the president is a weak constitutional actor. Campaigns are long on presidential promises and short on the recognition that the president is really limited in what he or she can do. And once in office, the president is the most visible person in government, which leads people to assign the most agency to him, even when it’s unwarranted. Moreover, movies and television habitually present the president as the one person who controls everything in government. In most movies, when the president barks orders, they instantly become law. It’s no wonder that most people have an outsized view of presidential authority; most of their exposure comes from 24 and large, ornate presidential addresses.
I’d also add that the optics of President Bush may have changed liberals’ perception of what the president can do. At every turn, we either heard that President Bush was doing “X” thing, or claiming “X” power, and without the context of a unified Republican Congress or a pliant executive branch, it was easy to believe that Bush was accomplishing these things through sheer force of will, when he simply wasn’t. And after Bush, what many liberals really wanted a “liberal Bush,” not realizing that Bush wasn’t nearly as successful as he was portrayed, and that the president isn’t nearly as powerful as they think.