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Jun. 17 2010 - 12:40 pm | 420 views | 1 recommendation | 5 comments

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.


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    Mr. Bouie,

    You are quite correct about Green Lantern theory of the presidency. The irony of this was that one of the major objections liberals rightly had of President Bush was his disdain for the rule of law. Mr. Bush did all sorts of things of questionable legality like his famous “signing statements” where he basically asserted that he could nullify any or all portions of law by the whim of his signature. Water-boarding, military tribunals, secret prisons, wiretapping, &c are all examples of Mr. Bush’s disdain for how government is supposed to work. Liberals and progressives castigated Mr. Bush for his curt and cursory dismal of the rule of law and justifiably so.

    Now the same people want Mr. Obama to basically do the same thing. So of the things that they want are of course actually beyond all current human power at all. Everyone is demanding that he stop the leak at the formerly lateral but now horizontal Deepwater Horizon. That is, at least right now, beyond the powers of any human being, much less a lawyer and former senator. Beyond that, they want him to order EPA to order BP to do X, Y, and Z. The problem is that EPA’s authority ends at the 12 nautical mile limit of the US’s “territorial seas”. “The Law of the Sea” does not give the US, or any government, authority over the foreign ships at sea in time of peace (as Israel’s supports have discovered) and oil drilling platforms, in international waters, are technically ships. Now that might be something we want to fix in future but it is the reality at the moment.

    The rule of law is something to be supported even at the expensive of people we support.

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    About Me

    I am a blogger and occasional freelance writer. Usually, you'll find me here, but I occasionally contribute to PostBourgie.com, as well as Spencer Ackerman's blog (when he's away). At my old Wordpress digs, I blogged about progressive politics, public policy, nerdy things and food, and here at True/Slant, I intend to do the same. I'm all about the social media, so feel free to follow me on Twitter: jbouie, or friend me on Facebook (though I might make you wait awhile). And if you'd rather avoid social media, you can always email me at jamelle DOT bouie AT gmail DOT com.

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