Obama the Superhero
Taegan Goddard wonders whether it’s “time for Obama to get angry” with recalcitrant bankers and Senate opponents alike. He cites Mark Murray‘s observation that “If there is one thing that both yesterday’s meeting with the bankers and today’s meeting with Senate Democrats have in common, it’s that they’re situations where some might argue that it’s time for the cool, calm, collected Obama to, well, lose his cool a bit. Of course, it’s only worth getting angry if you can follow it up with a tangible punishment.”
Presumably, as with the 1970s TV incarnation of “David” Bruce Banner, they wouldn’t like him when he gets angry and turns into the Incredible Hulk.
But Brendan Nyhan thinks a different superhero analogy is more apt.
During the Bush years, [Matthew] Yglesias coined the Green Lantern Theory of Geopolitics* to mock conservatives who believed that “[t]he only thing limiting us is a lack of willpower” in foreign policy. What he identifies here is nothing less than a Green Lantern theory of the presidency in which all domestic policy compromises are attributed to a lack of presidential will. And, like the Green Lantern theory of geopolitics, this view is nonfalsifiable. Rather than learning from, say, the stimulus vote that Obama faces severe constraints in the Senate, liberal GL proponents have created a narrative in which all failure and compromise is the result of a lack of presidential willpower. ([Jane]Hamsher, for instance, claims that “The failure to establish a public option to control medical costs and increase competition is President Obama’s failure alone.”) It’s a fantasy world.
The Silver Age Green Lantern, you may recall, could do pretty much anything he wanted so long as his ring was charged and his will was sufficiently strong. And the chief characteristic of a Green Lantern Corps chosen one was a lack of fear.
Neither international relations nor U.S. domestic politics work that way. The notion that all a president has to do is want something bad enough and demonstrate sufficient resolve and the world will bend to his will is not only silly but rather dangerous. But it nonetheless persists.
For rather obvious storytelling reasons, the various Green Lantern incarnations had Achilles heels. Their rings had to be periodically recharged, requiring them to circle back to their lanterns. The Golden Age version was powerless against wooden objects while the Silver Age version was, even more absurdly, powerless over yellow-colored ones. U.S. presidents, by contrast, have no bright line rules of this type. Their influence ebbs and flows depending on their own popularity and the situation on the ground at any point in time. But coercing a popular United States Senator into doing something he really doesn’t want to is next to impossible.