The Return of the Green Lantern Theory

Presuming the President has political super powers raises expectations and lets Republicans off the hook

Earlier this week, President Biden’s negotiations over infrastructure with Republican Senator Shelley Moore Capito came to an end. The negotiations continued past Biden’s self-imposed deadline and long ago exceeded the patience of progressives. The cheers from the Left turned into groans when it was revealed that Biden was exiting bipartisan talks with Capito to enter discussions with another bipartisan group of Senators. Different group, same long odds of success.

Even if Biden could strike a bipartisan deal, the result would be far less ambitious and progressive than the American Jobs Plan that Biden touted in his joint address to Congress. There are growing frustrations on the left and increasing criticisms from the media over a stalled legislative agenda. Congressman Jamaal Bowman recently tweeted that he might not support a deal along the lines of what Biden is discussing with Capito. With such a narrow margin in the House, the defection of a few members spells certain defeat.

Other Democrats are calling on Biden to end the negotiations and go it alone using the budget reconciliation process that requires only 50 votes despite the fact Joe Manchin is not yet on board with a Democrats-only approach. The protracted infrastructure discussion is reminiscent of the health care discussions of the summer of 2009. There has been a similar level of frustration directed at the White House over the dim prospects of the For the People Act, a $15 minimum wage, and other progressive priorities stuck in the Joe Manchin cul-de-sac.

Activists, pundits, and media types keep wondering why Biden can’t impose his will on the process in order to force Manchin, Sinema, and others to bend to his will on his very popular and necessary agenda. Cable television and newspapers are using headlines like “Biden’s Stalled Agenda.”

Biden responded to the chorus of critics during his historic visit to Tulsa, Oklahoma last week:

“I hear all the folks on TV saying, ‘Why didn’t Biden get this done?’ Well, because Biden only has a majority of, effectively, four votes in the House and a tie in the Senate with two members of the Senate who vote more with my Republican friends.”

I am very skeptical that Mitch McConnell would allow Biden to have a bipartisan victory, and I worry about the time elapsed on a ticking legislative clock. However, the conversation and coverage of this next phase of Biden’s presidency are reminiscent of a similar dynamic in the Obama years. Much to my annoyance, the “Green Lantern Theory” of politics has returned.

What is the “Green Lantern Theory?”

The Green Lantern is a D.C. Comics character with a ring of essentially unlimited power. You may be wondering how a comic book superhero once played by Ryan Reynolds in a historically terrible movie has anything to do with Joe Biden and infrastructure talks.

During Obama’s presidency, there was a consistent strain of political commentary that laid the blame for inaction in Washington — no matter the issue or the cause — at his feet. The dynamic was embodied by former National Journal columnist Ron Fournier, who consistently argued in every imaginable forum that Obama needed to “lead.” Fournier and others who shared his view never articulated a strategy that would break the gridlock or bring the increasingly radicalized Republicans to a middle ground.

To describe this form of argument, Brendan Nyhan, a Dartmouth political science professor and contributor to the New York Times Upshot, coined the term “Green Lantern Theory of Politics.” As Nyhan explained to Ezra Klein in a 2013 Vox piece:

The Green Lantern Theory is "the belief that the president can achieve any political or policy objective if only he tries hard enough or uses the right tactics." In other words, the American president is functionally all-powerful, and whenever he can't get something done, it's because he's not trying hard enough, or not trying smart enough.

Nyhan further separates this theory into two variants: "the Reagan version of the Green Lantern Theory and the LBJ version of the Green Lantern Theory." The Reagan version, he says, holds that "if you only communicate well enough, the public will rally to your side." The LBJ version says that "if the president only tried harder to win over Congress they would vote through his legislative agenda." In both cases, Nyhan argues, "we've been sold a false bill of goods."

The major problem with the “Green Lantern Theory” is that it confuses structural impediments with strategic miscalculations. Because the U.S. President is the head of state and the head of government, they loom large over American culture. A combination of King/Queen and Prime Minister. Presidents are the main character in the American national narrative for their time in office. Pop culture and historical renderings of our past presidents imbue them with near-magical political powers and tremendous heroism. Therefore, we often assume presidents have more power and influence than they possess.

To be fair, the presidents, their aides, and their supporters play a role in the perpetuation of the “Green Lantern Theory.” Candidates campaign in abstract possibility, but the prize for winning is governing in grudging reality.

The Dangers of the Green Lantern Theory

In the Obama years, most of the criticism was about his inability to get Republicans to pass his agenda. There were endless critiques from Morning Joe and other centrist pundits about why Obama didn’t play more golf with John Boehner or drink more bourbon with Mitch McConnell. There were countless columns wondering whether the masterful communicator that took the nation by storm at the 2004 Democratic Convention had lost his touch. Where was the speech to change the minds of the Republican base?

In hindsight, the idea that Barack Obama was a few golf dates, meetings, or speeches from convincing the party that was a few years from nominating Trump to pass an immigration reform act is laughably absurd.

Four years of Trump and a violent insurrection later, there is a modicum of realism among political observers about the challenges of large-scale bipartisan Congressional action. The new focus of the “Green Lantern Theory” is whether Joe Biden can make Joe Manchin, Kyrsten Sinema, and other recalcitrant Democrats do things they have vowed never to do: raise the minimum wage to $15, eliminate the filibuster, or in Manchin’s case, protect democracy from an advancing wave of billionaire-funded, nationalist authoritarianism. No one has ever governed with narrower majorities or a more vituperative opposition than Biden. His margin of error on legislative action is essentially zero.

In both cases, the president’s ability to make people do things that they do not support is limited or possibly non-existent. The risk of perpetuating the myth of the all-powerful president is that it can lead to disappointment and demobilization amongst the president’s supporters when progress feels insufficient. Failure — even when that failure is due to obstruction by the other party — is seen as a reason to disengage from politics, as opposed to doubling down to punish the obstructionists and make progress more likely.

How to Think About Presidential Pressure

When I worked in the White House, nothing annoyed me more than the oversimplistic narrative that every failure was a result of some strategic miscalculation by the president (or his staff). I am very sympathetic to the frustration that Biden showed in Tulsa, and I am sure the White House staff feels similarly whenever someone like me pushes for progress on H.R. 1 without acknowledging the true obstacles. Now that I am on the outside, my feelings are slightly more complicated. Take the tweet from Rep. Bowman for example. Bowman is certainly implying that Biden should be able to force Manchin et al to agree to a larger, Democrats-only infrastructure bill. It is an open question as to whether there is anything Biden can do to force Manchin to take that position. On the other hand, I certainly cannot begrudge progressives for using the leverage they have by virtue of the narrow majorities. In a 50-50 Senate, Bernie Sanders’ vote is worth as much as Joe Manchin’s — a fact that too often gets lost in the day-to-day political conversation.

I also don’t believe activists should preemptively trim their sails. The only way to drive progress is to push for things that seem impossible in the present. However, all of us that talk, write, and tweet about politics as a pastime could do three things better:

  • Do a Better Job of Setting Expectations: The relative ease with which Biden passed the American Rescue Plan is the exception, not the rule, for how things will (or will not) get done. The tremendous feat created expectations that were impossible to meet in future endeavors. Even I — a dyed-in-the-wool pessimist — got swept up in the FDR comparisons after the American Rescue Plan. It was always going to get more difficult from there. Passing a relief bill in the middle of a pandemic was always going to be exponentially easier than holding together the Democratic coalition to pass multi-trillion-dollar structural changes to the economy and electoral system.

  • Focus More on the Republicans as the Problem: When Democrats have unified control of the government, Republicans can get lost in the narrative. Progress on voting rights and the minimum wage is being stymied by unanimous Republican opposition to commonsense proposals supported by a huge majority of Americans. All the coverage of H.R. 1 focuses on Joe Manchin’s opposition, but why is the opposition of ten percent of Democrats a bigger story than the opposition of 100 percent of Republicans? The radicalization of a party that puts party over country cannot be considered a given in the political conversation. It is the greatest threat to democracy and the planet. The best way to deal with anger and frustration at a stalled agenda is to defeat the people stalling it. If we don’t make that a point, no one will.

  • Better Understand Presidential Power: If Manchin and Sinema continue to oppose the filibuster reform, a lot of the Biden agenda is going to be stuck in Congress. If we are being truly honest with ourselves, things will still be difficult if the filibuster is gone. Manchin, Sinema, and others oppose a $15 minimum wage. Manchin also opposes H.R. 1. Biden’s infrastructure plan only requires 50 votes, but Manchin isn’t yet on board. Put another way — this shit is really hard and often impossible in the near term.

    While presidents have limited influence over members of Congress from the same party and near-zero influence over members from the opposing party, they have a lot of executive authority. There is a lot Biden can do without Congress. When it comes to uses of executive authority, Manchin and the Republicans are not an excuse for inaction. The American Prospect’s David Dayen put together an invaluable resource called “The Day One Agenda” which lays out the sorts of things Biden has the power to do on his own. Executive actions do not happen in a vacuum. The rigged Republican courts can get in the way. Congress can repeal the actions using the Congressional Review Act. But they are an element of the presidency where the president can ask for forgiveness rather than permission. Take the case for eliminating student debt; it is widely believed that presidents have the authority to cancel some amount of student debt. President Biden has requested a legal opinion from the Department of Education confirming whether he has that authority. If the lawyers say he does and he doesn’t use it that is a place where responsibility for inaction lies with Biden and Biden only.

Biden’s first 100 days exceeded everyone’s expectations. The American Rescue Plan is a historic legislative achievement. Even if he had not passed a single bill, the progress the Biden Administration has made in controlling the pandemic is a triumph. Things are going to get more challenging in the weeks and months ahead. That is the natural rhythm of the presidency. Successes will be harder to come by. Party unity will fray, and frustrations will mount. If President Biden fails to push for things he promised to push, he should be held accountable. However, all of us could do a better job of understanding the limits on his power and pushing back on false narratives that absolve the Republicans for their role in the gridlock.