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Why the Green Lantern Theory of Presidential Power persists

At today’s press conference, President Obama spent a fair amount of time pushing back on what some of us are calling the “Green Lantern Theory of Presidential Power.” This theory — which seems to hold broad sway over many in the press — holds that presidents should be able to bend Congress to their will, and any failure to do so proves their weakness and perhaps even their irrelevance.

What accounts for the persistence of this theory? The answer, I think, lies in the tendency of reporters and analysts who are trying to remain a neutral, nonpartisan posture to feel comfortable making process judgments, but not ideological ones.

The extent and limits of presidential power were at the center of one of the most interesting exchanges of the day. ABC News’s Jonathan Karl asked this question:

Mr. President, you are a hundred days into your second term. On the gun bill, you put, it seems, everything into it to try to get it passed. Obviously, it didn’t. Congress has ignored your efforts to try to get them to undo these sequester cuts. There was even a bill that you threatened to veto that got 92 Democrats in the House voting yes. So my question to you is do you still have the juice to get the rest of your agenda through this Congress?

Obama answered that Republicans have the option of cooperating with him to avert the sequester. He also said:

You seem to suggest that somehow, these folks over there have no responsibilities and that my job is to somehow get them to behave. That’s their job. They are elected, members of Congress are elected in order to do what’s right for their constituencies and for the American people. So if, in fact, they are seriously concerned about passenger convenience and safety, then they shouldn’t just be thinking about tomorrow or next week or the week after that; they should be thinking about what’s going to happen five years from now, 10 years from now or 15 years from now. The only way to do that is for them to engage with me on coming up with a broader deal. And that’s exactly what I’m trying to do is to continue to talk to them about are there ways for us to fix this.

As Jamelle Bouie quipped: “Barack Obama asks press to maybe, possibly, hold Republicans responsible sometime.” Bouie added: “Congressional Republicans have agency, and at a certain point, they need to be held accountable for their actions.”

But here’s the problem: If a reporter or analyst were to call out Republicans for failing to compromise with Obama, that reporter or analyst would be calling on them to adopt a particular policy position, such as moving towards a mix of new revenues and spending cuts to replace the sequester. It would amount to a criticism of the Republican position — i.e., that we should only replace the sequester with spending cuts. This is impermissible for the neutral writer, because it constitutes an ideological judgment. On the other hand, faulting Obama for failing to get Republicans to move his way does not constitute taking any kind of stand on who is right, ideologically speaking. It only constitutes a judgment of Obama for failing to manipulate the process adequately.

This sometimes works against Republicans, too. John Boehner was widely pilloried by commentators for failing to control his caucus during the fiscal cliff fight. But Boehner struggled to do this because many conservatives in his caucus had adopted the extreme and borderline delusional position that taxes must not be raised, ever, no matter what. Criticizing the position of conservatives, however, would constitute an ideological judgment, which is far harder for the nonpartisan writer to make than to claim Boehner just can’t control his Members because he’s ineffective — a process criticism.

This isn’t to absolve Obama of all responsibility to move Congress. Surely presidents have the power to set the agenda and get the public to think more about an issue. But as many others have explained at great length — see Jonathan Bernstein and Kevin Drum on this — the president’s influence over Congress is currently quite limited, historically speaking, for a host of reasons. And in the particular case of guns and the sequester, the Green Lantern argument is even more absurd: Toomey-Manchin wouldn’t have passed even if every Democrat had voted for it; and the sequester cuts can’t be replaced with a compromise of Obama’s choosing because Republicans control the House of Representatives.

The reason all these explanations don’t weigh on the Green Lanternites is the basic process/ideological imbalance identified above. It’s okay for the nonpartisan writer to criticize a president for failing to exert his will (a process judgment), but it’s not okay for the nonpartisan writer to fault Republicans for failing to agree to move in the direction of the policy a president wants (an ideological judgment). Today, for instance, Ron Fournier, to his credit, conceded that Obama was right in describing the limits on his powers. But he added: “Even if you concede to Obama every point of his Tuesday news conference, a president looks weak and defeated when he shifts accountability to forces out of his control.”

Perhaps this is how the public will view Obama; perhaps it isn’t. What is clear, however, is the basic imbalance here. While neutral commentators often hold up compromise, abstractly, as the Holy Grail, the process/ideology dichotomy makes it much easier for those commentators to fault the president for failing to work the process effectively enough to secure compromise than to pillory the opposition for being ideologically uncompromising.