Brendan Nyhan’s “Green Lantern” theory of presidential politics—the (incorrect) belief that when things don’t turn out how a president wants it was because he didn’t want it deeply enough—has been all over the Internet lately. And, no matter how false that image of the presidency might be, it’s probably not going away. The idea of the president as a Magical King serves everyone’s interests—beginning with man in the Oval Office himself.
Political scientists who study the presidency have long contended that the presidency is a relatively weak office: the presidency is the single most influential position in the political system, but the president cannot get very much done just by giving orders. Not only does he have to bargain with Congress—which means 535 individual politicians, all with their own constituencies and interests and preferences, and many of whom have strong partisan reasons for opposing whatever he wants—but he can’t even, in many cases, control the executive branch departments and agencies. Instead, he must compete for influence over them with Congress, with interest groups, and with the bureaucrats themselves.
Sean Trende argues that Barack Obama is only getting what he deserves. He promised such abilities when campaigning in 2008. Fair enough, as far as that goes.
But it's not a solvable problem. The presidency-as-magic idea goes deep into the political culture, and no one is going to vote for a president who paints a more realistic version of the influence of the chief executive—much less one who campaigns on a Whig platform promising a limited presidency. Obama was more eloquent in his promises than some candidates, but his promises were pretty much par for the course. All presidents set themselves up for this particular fall.
And they do so for good reason: despite the disappointments, the idea that the president governs, that the president is head of state and head of government—rather than just a coequal politician in a system of separated institutions sharing powers—is an idea that really does give the president influence.
Consider, for example, the reaction Americans have to disasters, whether it’s tornadoes in Oklahoma or the shooting in Connecticut or the bombing in Boston, is to turn to see what the president has to say. Even when the victim is one of Congress’s own, as it was when Gabby Giffords was shot, no one cared what John Boehner or Nancy Pelosi had to say. Barack Obama was the president, and everyone waited for his words of comfort and inspiration.
That image, and image of the president as a hero-king, is not Constitutional; remember that the presidency is Article II, not Article I. Yet it’s very real, and gives the president real influence.
Real influence, but limited. “Magic” only goes so far. Think about Sandy Hook. Barack Obama used his ability to set the agenda—an ability that is nowhere in the Constitution but nevertheless quite effective—to not only move Congress toward a legislative reaction, but to lead Congress on the general focus of that legislation. No, he couldn’t do much more than that; presidents are not able to dictate how senators vote, and their ability to indirectly influence them by going over their heads to the people is minimal at best. But even though it’s limited, that’s no small influence. Indeed—it was easy to see the difference between gun violence in which the president “demanded” a legislative response (Sandy Hook) and one he didn’t (Tucson).
Indeed, presidents cling to the image of themselves as heroic kings—and amplify it—precisely because their influence is so small. They are usually reluctant to cede any source of it, whether statutory or, in this case, simply from the political culture. Even though it contains the obvious downside of disappointment when the president cannot, after all, produce magic. And what’s more, reporters are happy to encourage the very easy to explain (even if not, strictly speaking, true) story of policy formation as centered on the president and largely within his control. After all, telling a more accurate story requires a lot more players, many of whom are obscure; it also often requires a more complex, and perhaps less cinematic, view than simply a personal challenge for one lone man.
The outcomes: presidential candidates and the press conspire to build up this idea, no matter how many times it’s disproved. So even though it’s perfectly obvious to careful observers that presidents do not, in fact, have any “Jedi mind meld” powers over members of Congress or anyone else, don’t expect the idea of magical kings to go away any time soon.