BOB GARFIELD This is On the Media, I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And I'm Brooke Gladstone. Last weekend, the Biden administration began distributing the fruits of the American rescue plan, its first major win in Congress.
NEWS REPORT Let me show you what we're talking about for a typical family of 4 with 2 young children. Each family member, they're going to get one of those 1400 dollar stimulus checks. That's going to total to about 5600 dollars. Then on top of that, they're getting an additional child tax credit for 2600 dollars for two of those kids, and for a total, listen to this 8200 dollars for that family [END CLIP]
BERNIE SANDERS This is the most significant piece of legislation passed for working families in many, many decades. It is an historic bill. [END CLIP]
NEWS REPORT 28.6 billion dollars for the restaurant industry, airlines get another 15 billion dollars there, 7.25 billion to expand the payroll protection program, 1.7 Billion for Amtrak and easier rules for the live entertainment venues to access their aid. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE But amidst this sea of stimulus was one glaring absence. One of Biden's core campaign promises.
[CLIP] NEWS REPORT One thing progressives are deeply disappointed by, though, was the absence of the 15 dollar minimum wage from the American rescue plan. It was taken out by the Senate parliamentarian and the White House didn't fight that. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE After a handful of moderate Democrats shot down the minimum wage hike, some progressive journalists blamed Biden for not fighting tooth and nail – I mean, really, really trying – to get it in the bill. This belief that a president's legislative shortcomings are the product of a lack of will is what some media critics call the Green Lantern theory of the presidency. The Green Lantern Corps., for those unfamiliar with the DC Comics canon, are a class of superheroes who can conjure supernatural weapons using sheer willpower. As in that Ryan Reynolds movie from 2011.
GREEN LANTERN Anything I see in my mind, I can create, I just have to focus.
CAROL Anything? [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE But according to Brendan Nyhan, a professor of government at Dartmouth College and the man who coined the term "the Green Lantern theory of the presidency," the idea overstates the power of the executive. He says that even when there's a will, there may not be a way.
BRENDAN NYHAN My understanding is the Green Lantern Corps have a ring whose powers are limited only by the wearer's willpower. Matt Iglesias is a blogger, he originally applied that idea to geopolitics. He was criticizing conservatives who said the failures of U.S. foreign policy in the post 9/11 era were attributable to a lack of will. And I saw that same idea as being applicable to domestic politics too, where the president's powers are actually quite limited.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And so all this brings us to the criticism currently directed at Joe Biden. Many progressives are upset by the failure to include the 15 dollar minimum wage, and argued that Biden could have done more to convince Democratic senators like Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona who voted against it. David Sirota wrote in The Guardian, he's a former speechwriter for Bernie Sanders, the famous example from Lyndon B. Johnson's fight for Medicare as proof that a tough president can strong arm members of Congress into adopting his goals.
BRENDAN NYHAN Yeah, I think that LBJ arm twisting myth has been a major contributor to Green Lantern style discourse around the president. That the president can, through the kind of cajoling described in these famous accounts, bring numerous votes to his side in Congress. It's very difficult for the president to move votes in Congress. Ask Barack Obama for most of his time in office. Ask Donald Trump, ask any occupant of the White House. LBJ came into office with huge Democratic majorities. Joe Biden has a margin of zero votes in the Senate. Joe Manchin represents a state where almost 70 percent of people voted for Donald Trump. I'm not sure what arm twisting could cause him to vote against his political interests. The Democrats are an anchor around his neck politically. Withdrawing their support from him is not some kind of a threat. It probably helps him.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Getting back to LBJ, you say that he is one of two main illustrations that would seem to support the Green Lantern theory. The other president is Ronald Reagan.
BRENDAN NYHAN Rather than LBJ style arm twisting. Activists say that the president could marshal public opinion, if they only made the case publicly, they could win over the public to their side and therefore rally Congress to support their priorities. This was a recurring theme in the Obama years because he was a quite skilled orator. The evidence, however, suggests that presidential speechmaking is often ineffective. Ronald Reagan wrote in his own diaries when he was president that his case for aid to the Contras in Latin America failed to rally support, and reportedly he was even told by his own pollster that the public comments he was offering on behalf of the cause were actually making it harder for him by rallying opposition. And that's the dilemma that presidents face. David Frum, the conservative commentator, has argued that one of the most effective communication strategies of the early Biden administration has been how little he has talked. Precisely because it avoids making him the focal point of a conversation, given that presidents are so polarizing in our current era. So, again, the idea here is it's not a case of the president failing to deploy their public communication powers, it's that those public communication powers are highly overrated. Once the president gets the issues where they don't have the votes, sometimes they will try. Barack Obama campaigned quite extensively on behalf of gun control and renewed those efforts after high profile mass shootings. But it was fruitless. He would campaign on behalf of it because maybe it could help move the needle, but it never was enough to successfully enact the legislation the administration was proposing.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You suggested that it's worth paying attention to what Biden doesn't say as much as he does say. Like he didn't talk publicly about the impeachment vote.
BRENDAN NYHAN That's right. He's stayed away from so many controversies like vaccines, where it's very important for everyone in this country to get vaccinated, and for that not to be seen as a partisan or polarizing issue. And so the administration's communication strategy very much emphasizes local and community leaders and trusted sources rather than national political figures who could be more polarizing. That may be a smart kind of communication strategy in 21st century America. Liberals in particular want to believe in a West Wing version of the world where oratory wins people over, and that's just not a way politics works and presidents learn that over and over again.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Of course, the Biden style is the exact opposite of Trump, who you called in 2015, the purest Green Lantern candidate we've seen in recent years. What do you mean?
BRENDAN NYHAN Donald Trump again and again claimed that he would make things happen through sheer force of will. He would cut the best deals. This was most often expressed when it came to trade. Change the balance of trade with China, reverse the decline of American manufacturing.
TRUMP Politicians are all talk, no action. Nothing's gonna to get done. They will not bring us, believe me, to the promised land. [END CLIP]
BRENDAN NYHAN He promised everything to everyone. And we saw how limited his powers of persuasion were, even in a party that was enthralled to him. Republicans are terrified of being on the wrong side of Donald Trump politically. They're extremely unwilling to support his impeachment, to call out his attacks on the integrity of the election or to denounce the scandals. But when it came to legislation, the Republican Party did what the Republican Party wanted to do for the most part. Donald Trump's signature legislative achievement was a conventional Republican tax cut. His health care policy was a conventional health care policy proposal from the Republican side, which ultimately failed. The only areas where he was able to really change the direction of the party on policy were those that didn't require votes in Congress. He faced all the same legislative constraints that have frustrated past presidents and was not able to bluster past them. However, we discovered during the Trump presidency that we depended on the president respecting the democratic norms of our system, such as not calling for the imprisonment of your political opponents or attacking the integrity of an election in which you were defeated. Those norms can be overridden through sheer force of will. Donald Trump was willing to cross those lines in a way that past presidents weren't. We should not only recognize how frequently presidents overstate their ability to get what they want but be wary of what happens when they actually succeed. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Let me return to David Sirota's Guardian piece from earlier this month for a minute. He actually responded to your Green Lantern theory formulation by saying, hey, if we adopted your position, we'd be succumbing to what he calls the, quote, powerless president narrative. Is it possible that by invoking the Green Lantern theory, you're basically dismissing criticism of Biden's efforts and letting him or any other president off the hook?
BRENDAN NYHAN I can't say that the term or the theory is always applied in a way I would agree with, and I certainly am not saying that the Biden administration's legislative strategy is perfect. I do question, though, the assumption that people who are the absolute top of national politics don't know how to get votes and are unable to see how easily they could win members of Congress or the public to their side. That seems like a strange preconception to have, and when it's offered by activists with obvious ideological axes to grind, I'm suspicious. I certainly can't rule it out, but the historical record suggests more often these claims are at least unsupported and unproven. Again, it doesn't mean the president shouldn't try, but these constraints are real, and, Brooke let me just add one more thing: when people call for the president to try, they often fail to take into account the costs of trying. Every issue that is prioritized by a president means that other issues don't get prioritized. Every legislative push in Congress means another priority doesn't get attention, so it's not just simply a matter of trying. And if you don't try, you don't care, it's a matter of prioritizing among many issues and policies that a president cares about. In some cases, the people at the top, they're making a calculation about where to allocate their effort and attention. And rather than throw a Hail Mary on some issue where the chances of success are slim, they'd rather focus our attention where they think they have a better chance.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Mhm. You believe that it's still early days for the Green Lantern theory under Biden and that [SIGHS] we'll be hearing this narrative over and over again in the news in the coming weeks and months?
BRENDAN NYHAN Very much. We should put a marker down, now. The president just achieved a major policy success, maybe one of the most important pieces of social policy legislation in recent decades, but this was the low hanging fruit, the legislation where the political opportunity was greatest. From here on out, the president's going to face failure and compromise, failure and compromise the way every president does. And so we're going to hear this story again and again. This very president centric way of thinking about why Congress hasn't taken some particular action. And I just hope going forward, journalists in reporting about these events don't fall victim to these simplistic stories about why Biden failed. I'm sure there will be many failures and many mistakes, but it's not simply a matter of failing to try hard enough.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Are you talking about the filibuster?
BRENDAN NYHAN Some people see the Democrats failure to get rid of the filibuster as itself reflecting a lack of will. But there again, the Democrats need 50 votes and if they don't have the votes, they can't do it. So how do you get Joe Manchin and his colleagues to all vote to get rid of the filibuster? That's the question facing Democrats right now. Joe Biden may have the will to get rid of the filibuster, but unless he has the votes, it doesn't matter. It's not clear that he has the leverage to get rid of it as easily as people have suggested.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Well, but to conclude this argument over willpower, intent, sincerity and how to read their lack in Biden's failures to pass things – in other words, the Green Lantern theory, we're going to see that hanging around for a while.
BRENDAN NYHAN The belief that the president could get what the activists want, if only they tried hard enough, I'm convinced is an evergreen. This idea will never go away. We have a kind of heroic, all powerful conception of the president, and as the president has accumulated more powers in other domains and becomes such an important figure in popular culture and news coverage, the tendency to view politics through this prism has only become stronger.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Do you think we would have been better off without the West Wing?
BRENDAN NYHAN There's a cohort of liberals of a certain age who very much have an understanding of the presidency and its powers. That seems to have an Aaron Sorkin inflected tone, and I have many friends and family members who love that show, but I don't think that's the best way to understand American politics, and you would not do well in my in my class on the presidency if you were writing from Sorkin scripts.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Brendan, thank you very much.
BRENDAN NYHAN Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Brendan Nyhan is a professor of government at Dartmouth College.
BOB GARFIELD Coming up, what you can learn from a Shakespeare production that asks you to listen even harder to what you may not understand.
BROOKE GLADSTONE This is On the Media.
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