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How Big a Job is the Presidency?

...In the face of a Republican legislative blockade, Obama has, of late, been testing his executive authority in areas from pay equity to solar energy. At the same time, he can’t seem to break the habit of speaking frankly—and wearily—about the limits of Presidential power. Last week, he commented that, in international affairs, “you hit singles, you hit doubles; every once in a while we may be able to hit a home run.” This was merely the latest in a string of such statements, each one an implied shrug. Many Presidents have seen things this way—most feel acutely the checks on their power—but few in recent memory have been as quick to admit it.

One contingent is cheering this candor, but it’s not a group of anti-government conservatives. It consists of commentators who have nothing against Barack Obama in particular but instead have taken on what one of their number, Ezra Klein, of Vox, deems “the most damaging myth in American politics”—that “the presidency can fix all our problems.” (He wrote about this issue in a piece for The New Yorker as well.) Klein’s colleague Matt Yglesias calls this the Green Lantern Theory of the American Presidency: the idea that he who wears the glowing green ring, or in this case the Presidential bomber jacket, can do almost anything if he just has the will. The Presidency, these writers say, citing the Founders, is weak by design, and it’s time we grew up and acknowledged it. This week, when a poll by Harvard’s Institute of Politics revealed that Millennial voters are losing faith in the institution of the Presidency, Klein reacted succinctly: “Good.” 

Again, their goal is not an enfeebled federal government; it’s an energized and accountable Congress, which, in their view, is where the real power lies (or is supposed to, anyway). It’s true that the mythology of the American Presidency obscures or obliterates the role of other actors, whether the legislative and judicial branches or popular movements for reform. As Clay Risen’s new book, “The Bill of the Century,” makes clear, credit for the Civil Rights Act—to choose one emblematic example—ought not accrue to Lyndon Johnson alone.

They offer, then, an important corrective, but it may be a touch too eager in its dismissal of Presidential power, and too confident in its faith that the Founders wanted it that way. It risks replacing the Green Lantern Theory with a counter-myth—you might call it the Great and Powerful Oz Theory, in which the man behind those curtains in the Oval Office is meeker than anyone knew.

That is not, in fact, what the Founders intended, nor is it what our national experience reflects. The Constitution invests considerable “energy in the executive,” as Hamilton put it in The Federalist No. 70, and our earliest executives—long before Theodore Roosevelt swanned around saying “bully”—were plenty energetic. Even Jefferson, the most vehement among them in his hatred of “monarchism,” showed no inclination, as President, to just sit back and let Congress lead. The historian Henry Adams wrote that it would be “hard to see how any President could be more Federalist than Jefferson himself.” ...

Read entire article at The New Yorker