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The President Isn't Green Lantern. So What Is He Then?

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GREEN LANTERN THEORY
In this June 26, 2013 file photo, actor Clark Gregg poses at the 39th Saturn Awards at The Castaway, in Burbank, Calif. Five years ago, Gregg played Agent Phil Coulson for the first time as a small role in the Robert Downey Jr. romp "Iron Man." | Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP

Over at Vox this week, Ezra Klein offers up the latest critique of the "Green Lantern Theory of the Presidency." He's not the first to have done so, and God knows he won't be the last. It's a topic of frequent fascination of many writers, including Greg Sargent, Brendan Nyhan, John Sides, Jonathan Chait, Jamelle Bouie and Jonathan Bernstein. It's not the first bite at the apple for the Vox family either -- Matt Yglesias has discussed this on many occasions, and Klein himself explored the matter while he was at Wonkblog. And, of course, the Green Lantern Theory has been discussed on these pages.

It is, by now, a pretty well-worn topic that I don't think any of us particularly enjoy coming back to, but -- to bastardize Edmund Burke -- the only thing necessary for the triumph of stupid is for good men and women to do nothing.

Green Lantern Theory is a pernicious form of stupidity promulgated by the political science world's versions of climate change deniers. And as Klein notes, not only does Green Lantern Theory ascribe weird and illogical powers to the presidency and then blame the executive when the inevitable failure to manifest these powers that don't exist occurs, it also does Congress dirty -- simultaneously failing to give its members (and their power) the respect they deserve while also letting them skate on taking their share of responsibility.

Frankly, Green Lantern Theory isn't just a dumb and bewildering critique of presidential power, it also lies at the root of a dumb and bewildering defense of presidential power. If you spend enough time in the wild, you'll inevitably find ardent fans of a president, who truly believe that every setback suffered by the object of their affection is secretly just one part of a hidden gambit on an 11th-dimensional chessboard that leads to certain victory.

So there's a constant need to demystify this hack nonsense (which enjoys the advantage of being super-easy to write in bulk). But more importantly, it's important to actually provide an avenue to a sensible critique. And the best part of Klein's recent foray into these weeds comes at the end, where he manages the "repeal and replace" maneuver.

Obama can do a good or bad job within the actual limits of the presidency. The problem with the Green Lantern Theory is that it focuses so much attention on the presidency that it lets everyone else off the hook -- and thus makes it harder for voters to hold elected leaders accountable. Outcomes that are actually being driven by Congress, for instance, get attributed to the president, and voters don't know who to blame.

There's plenty meanwhile that is actually up to the president. The Obama administration, for instance, was in charge of implementing Obamacare and they botched it badly. They have a lot of power to set sweeping limits on carbon emissions from power plants and there are real questions as to how they'll use it. They clearly have more power than they've chosen to exercise over the pace of deportations. They now have the ability to push both executive and judicial nominees through the Senate and so the continued slow pace of nominations is on them. The Treasury Department left a lot of money earmarked for helping homeowners languishing in a bank account. Even people without magical power rings can be very powerful.

Klein continues in this vein, pointing out that with all the attendant fascination given to the White House's role in enacting big pieces of legislation, an area where enormous limits are placed on executive power, there's less focus on the management and "implementation of existing government programs." It's in this latter set of tasks that the true mettle of presidential abilities are tested, and sometime found to be wanting.

But hey! The important thing that Klein points out here is that even if you limit yourself to the earthbound, common, quotidian aspects of life in the Executive Branch, you can be substantive, interesting, incisive, useful, and fully-enabled as an agent of accountability. Or you could chase unicorn poop into the eternium ... you know, your choice.

But every time the Green Lantern Theory is advanced in someone's copy, it actually takes readers further away from the truth. It also advances a fundamentally un-American vision of presidential power -- this nation was founded on the principle that rulers should not wield power rings and infinity gauntlets. And finally, Green Lantern Theory actually makes the already tremendous job of being a president even harder than it needs to be, by letting the legislative branch off the hook for their involvement in the nation's high-stakes affairs, and constantly enforcing the notion that every problem secretly has an easy fix ... if only the president would use it!

So no, the presidency does not possess special magics, and the president is not Green Lantern. Perhaps it would be helpful though, to mine the comic-book milieu for a better metaphor. The field of super-heroes is filled with aliens and mutants, gods and monsters, conquerors and victims of super-science. None of them seem to really do the trick in terms of capturing the specific nature and delineated powers of our presidency. Going outside the box, I think that maybe the ideal depiction of the American President is more like an Agent Coulson -- team-assembler, favorable environment provider, manager of discrete tasks and outsized personalities, quick to adapt to changing circumstances, eminently mortal, and yet (spoiler alert) at times resurrectable.

But I'm a mere amateur with the comic book canon. If any of you pros out there have a new comic book metaphor to offer as the stand-in identity for the office of the president, shoot me an email, I'd love to hear your ideas.

[Would you like to follow me on Twitter? Because why not?]

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