Presidents consistently overpromise and underdeliver. What they need to say to get elected far outpaces what they can actually do in office. President Obama is a perfect example. His 2008 campaign didn’t just promise health-care reform, a stimulus bill, and financial regulation. It also promised a cap-and-trade bill to limit carbon emissions, comprehensive immigration reform, gun control, and much more. His presidency, he said, would be change American could believe in. But it’s clear now that much of the change he promised isn’t going to happen — in large part because he doesn’t have the power to make it happen.
You would think voters in general and professional media pundits in particular would, by now, be wise to this pattern. But they’re not. Each disappointment wounds anew. Each unchecked item on the to-do list is a surprise. Belief in the presidency seems to be entirely robust to the inability of any particular president to make good on their promises. And so the criticism is always the same: why can’t the president be more like the Green Lantern?
According to Brendan Nyhan, the Dartmouth political scientist who coined the term, the Green Lantern Theory of the Presidency 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.