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Green Lantern Theory

The “Green Lantern Theory” is how political scientists describe the belief that presidents could do more if they just tried a bit harder.

The term refers to the DC Comics superhero whose power is limited only by his willpower.

Dartmouth political scientist Brendan Nyhan, who coined the term, explained that 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.”

The assumption is that the president is all-powerful, and when he can’t get something done, it’s because he’s not trying hard enough.

Nyhan further separates the theory into two variants:

  • The Reagan version 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.”

However, both cases are wrong because there are so many things a president cannot control.

Pollster Dan Cassino put it this way: “Americans want someone to fix things. The president is someone, so they want him to fix things. The problem is that there just isn’t a lot that any president can actually do about most of these issues.”

As Dan Pfeiffer, communications director to President Barack Obama, explained:

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.

Of course, presidents themselves — along with their staffs and supporters — do quite a bit help perpetuate the Green Lantern theory.

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