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Sunday, November 28, 2021

Green Lantern: Exaggerating Presidential Power

Scott Clifford, D.J. Flynn, Brendan Nyhan, and Kasey Rhee have a paper titled Decider in Chief? Why and how the public exaggerates the power of the presidency."

 Democratic accountability requires citizens to accurately attribute credit and blame to leaders and institutions. However, citizens tend to simplify politics by personifying the state as its leader and directing credit and blame accordingly. Using an expert survey and a five-wave public panel survey spanning two administrations, we conduct the first comprehensive study of perceptions about presidential power. We demonstrate that the public exaggerates the president’s powers relative to scholarly experts and that those who exaggerate presidential powersmost are more likely to attribute blame to the president. However, a change in partisan control of the presidency shifts perceptions of power among partisans. Finally, we find suggestive evidence of similar shifts in belief after salient policy failures. These results provide the most direct evidence to date that citizens generally exaggerate the president’s influence and control but that these beliefs change over time in response to events.

In 2009, Nyhan blogged:

Matthew Yglesias pinpoints an important -- and absurd -- meme in which liberals blame Obama's legislative compromises on a lack of will (see, for instance, Kos and Hamsher on health care reform):
I sort of want to stop writing about Matt Taibbi, but his decision to respond to his critics with an article on “Obamania” compels me to write more... [W]hen it comes to domestic policy issues, and certainly when it comes to financial reform, you’d be hard-pressed to find an issue on which there’s a majority in the House, and a majority on all the relevant House committees, and a majority on all the relevant Senate committees, and 60 votes in the Senate for some progressive bill but Barack Obama is standing in the way of reform...

Whatever failings the package may have, they’re not the fault of the Obama administration. And whatever ties the Obama administration may have to big banks, the banks like the Republicans’ ideas a lot better than they like Obama’s.

If you want to complain about the Obama administration, you should complain about their conduct of issues they actually have control over... [O]n legislative matters that require the concurrence of congress, it’s not clear what pushing Obama to the left would accomplish. Rather than “Obamamania” I think a lot of the left is infected with a kind of “Presidentmania” in which they assume that the White House could get anything done if only they really wanted it. But let me promise you, the White House wants to sign a health care bill. They really, really do. Having their top priority bogged down for months is not part of a secret plan.
During the Bush years, Yglesias coined the Green Lantern Theory of Geopolitics*
to mock conservatives who believed that "[t]he only thing limiting us is a lack of willpower" in foreign policy. What he identifies here is nothing less than a Green Lantern theory of the presidency in which all domestic policy compromises are attributed to a lack of presidential will. And, like the Green Lantern theory of geopolitics, this view is nonfalsifiable. Rather than learning from, say, the stimulus vote that Obama faces severe constraints in the Senate, liberal GL proponents have created a narrative in which all failure and compromise is the result of a lack of presidential willpower. (Hamsher, for instance, claims that "The failure to establish a public option to control medical costs and increase competition is President Obama’s failure alone.") It's a fantasy world.