Max Sawicky nails the problem with the ‘Green Lantern’ critique–arguing that presidential critics are being unrealistic, because presidents, unlike the Green Lantern, can’t simply will things to happen (boldface mine):
While presidential power can be exaggerated, so too can the inertia of public opinion. There are positions that enjoy massive public support but little presidential effort, such as universal background checks for firearms purchasers. That doesn’t mean Congress will just roll over in support of positions that their constituents actually support, but it does indicate political potential. If nobody is talking about it, when does anybody think a change would be possible? There are other positions where public opinion is malleable.
Speaking for myself, I’d be happy to stipulate that Obama got most of what could be gotten in the realm of domestic legislation when he had Democratic majorities in the Congress. Health care could have been somewhat better, but not much. Ditto Dodd-Frank. The first stimulus was about as big as it could have been.
The main problem in the big domestic policy cases was the cynicism that the Administration and its apologists share: that public opinion is something they are stuck with, rather than something they can influence. I do not suggest this could have been changed enough in real time to affect the legislative result. I am certain if no ambitious policies are ever put forward and motivated, we will never get them. That’s the defensible truth of the West/Frank/Kazin critique: it’s not so much the policy compromises at the end of the process, it’s the rhetorical compromises at the beginning and right on through to the end, and beyond. It’s the lack of any sustained focus on any big, affirmative national goal (Kazin’s point). The prospect of some future innovation in policy seems foreclosed. The Obama presidency is over. He has turned himself into a lame duck.
Another example is ‘judicial activism’, which went from an obscure rightwing legal concept to an acceptable talking point, largely through repeated discussion. Now, liberals will sometimes attept to play ‘gotcha’ by showing how ‘activist’ conservative courts have been. Nothing changes if nothing is proposed.
The other problem is, as Commandate Atrios notes often, that it fails to differentiate between Democrats and Republicans: differences must be sharp and stark, not middling to be able to say “we’re for X, not Y.” Rhetoric does matter over the long-term, especially when party-building (which, admittedly, is too declassé for the typical upwardly-mobile pundit).
Like we’ve discussed before, if there’s a better strategy, I’m all for it, but I’m not hearing one.