Magnificent, thoughtful piece from Ezra Klein addressing the Green Lantern Theory of the Presidency:
In these arguments, “presidential leadership” plays the role of the briefcase in “Pulp Fiction.” It drives the entire story, yet we never get to see what’s in it. Peggy Noonan saysof today’s dysfunctional politics, “if you’re a leader you can lead right past it.” How? Well, uh, look over there!
Maureen Dowdwritesthat the job of the president “is to somehow get this dunderheaded Congress, which is mind-bendingly awful, to do the stuff he wants them to do. It’s called leadership.” Actually, I think getting people who disagree with you to do what you want them to do is called “the Jedi mind trick,” but I digress.
It’s impossible to argue with these columns because they never actually say what they’re about. If Noonan or Dowd explained what the president should actually do, we could have a discussion. But they don’t, presumably because they can’t.
The National Journal’s Ron Fournier has also been a big proponent of “the president should lead” theory of American politics, but, to his credit, he has spent a lot of time generously engaging with his critics on the issue. So unlike with a Dowd or a Noonan, it’s possible to map the boundaries of his argument.
When asked what kind of presidential leadership could bridge the divisions in American politics, Fournier demurs: That’s why he’s glad he isn’t president, he says. But he’s certain that Obama can answer the question, or at least should have to answer the question. Hisoft-expressed view is that dismissing the power of presidential leadership to fix American politics is simply “giving Obama cover to fail.” It’s “raising the white flag.”
Fournier and other adherents of the Green Lantern Theory of the Presidency are caught between a question they can’t answer and an answer they can’t abide. They don’t know exactly what Obama — or any other president — could do to overcome the structural polarization that’s cracking Congress. But the idea that there’s nothing the president can really do is too displeasing to entertain. It suggests that politics is broken, and it won’t be fixed, at least not anytime soon. And that’s an unacceptable answer, even if rejecting it leaves you with an unanswerable question.
There’s much more, and it’s very much worth taking the time to read it if you care about this sort of thing.