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Obama the Superhero

Green Lantern
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.

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About James Joyner
James Joyner is the publisher of Outside the Beltway, an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. He has a PhD in political science from The University of Alabama. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter.

Comments

  1. James H says:

    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.

    Check out the recurring SNL bit in which Rahm Emannuel fantasizes about “The Rock” Obama.

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  2. James H says:

    Interestingly, the Green Lanterns underwent another permutation with Green Lantern: Rebirth. They now recruit not for fearlessness, but for the ability to feel fear, and then to overcome it with willpower.

    Also, there is now an issue with Black Lantern rings attaching themselves to dead heroes and bringing said heroes back to life as zombies, but that’s neither here nor there.

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  3. Dave Schuler says:

    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.

    I don’t think that “popularity” quite covers the constraints on presidential action in foreign affairs, James.

    Nominally, presidents have great freedom of action in foreign affairs and practically, given the reluctance of the Congress to take responsibility for practically anything, their freedom of action is virtually unlimited. Why, then, do presidents have so much difficulty acting?

    I think it’s that they’re caught between the Scylla of their political base and the Charybdis of swing voters. That’s something a little more kinetic than “popularity”.

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  4. James Joyner says:

    Nominally, presidents have great freedom of action in foreign affairs and practically, given the reluctance of the Congress to take responsibility for practically anything, their freedom of action is virtually unlimited.

    Right. I’m thinking of the president’s limits vis-a-vis foreign actors rather than the domestic constraints on his powers.

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  5. sam says:

    Harry Truman on presidential power(I’m quoting from memory–sam):

    I don’t know where people get the idea the president has all this power. I spend most of my time around here kissing somebody’s ass.

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  6. sam says:

    For James H: Jesus Christ, dude, that’s some serious nerdity.

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  7. Alex Knapp says:

    Why a picture of Hal Jordan and not John Stewart?

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  8. James Joyner says:

    Why a picture of Hal Jordan and not John Stewart?

    I’m old school like that.

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  9. James H says:

    I vote for Guy Gardner.

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  10. James H says:

    PS. No, that wasn’t serious nerdity. Serious nerdity would have been naming all of the colored Lanterns, the emotions they represent, and their individual strengths and weaknesses. Not that I know or anything …

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  11. Alex Knapp says:

    James H –

    Pish. SERIOUS nerdity is being able to, off the top of one’s head, successfully recite the OATHS for each of the color lanterns…

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