David Axelrod, a former campaign adviser to President Obama, echoed many panicked Republicans on Monday when he said the president is responsible for the rise of GOP frontrunner Donald Trump. In a New York Times essay, he wrote that voters “almost always” seek candidates who have “the personal qualities the public finds lacking in the departing executive.”
This year, writes Mr. Axelrod, “many Republicans view dimly the very qualities that played so well for Mr. Obama in 2008. Deliberation is seen as hesitancy; patience as weakness. His call for tolerance and passionate embrace of America’s growing diversity inflame many in the Republican base, who view with suspicion and anger the rapidly changing demographics of America. The president’s emphasis on diplomacy is viewed as appeasement."
Mr. Axelrod isn’t the first to marvel at the anger among Republican voters—though much of it is anger at their own leaders for not being more successful at blocking or repealing Obama policies. But during Mr. Obama’s first term, many liberals and Democrats also criticized the president for being too timid and too patient. Why, when the Democrats controlled both chambers of Congress, didn’t Mr. Obama fight harder for a single-payer health insurance system, and why couldn’t he get a bigger federal stimulus package? Even after the Republicans won big in the 2010 congressional elections, many rank-and-file Democrats considered the president a weakling for signing an extension of the tax cuts passed under President George W. Bush.
Even now, some Democrats point to Mr. Obama’s inability to shut down the Guantanamo Bay detention center, a move strongly opposed by both the Pentagon and Congress, as proof of his ineffectiveness. The perception that he gave in too much to Republicans may have been on Bernie Sanders’s mind when he said in 2011, asked about a primary challenge to Mr. Obama’s second term, “I think it would do this country a good deal of service if people started thinking about candidates out there to begin contrasting what is a progressive agenda as opposed to what Obama is doing.”
The grousing about Mr. Obama from members of his own party during his first term led political scientist Brendan Nyhan to reach for a superhero analogy in describing the American hunger for a strong president. Mr. Nyhan described the Green Lantern fallacy as “the belief that the president can achieve any political or policy objective if only he tries hard enough or uses the right tactics.”
That sounds a lot like Mr. Trump’s appeal—he’ll somehow get things done through sheer force of will—and there’s something disingenuous about Democrats denouncing something they had wished for not so long ago.
Still, Mr. Trump as Green Lantern seems to be part of the wishful thinking by which some establishment Republicans are gingerly embracing his candidacy—at least as an alternative to Texas Senator Ted Cruz. (No longer in the lead in Iowa polls, Mr. Cruz may have already reached the limits of his strategy of winning through alienating everyone he comes in contact with. He provoked one of the most factual and coherent statements to come from Mr. Trump this campaign season: "The biggest problem he has, he’s a nasty guy and nobody likes him. Not one Republican senator, he works with them every day, not one Republican senator has endorsed Ted Cruz.”)
Former GOP nominee and Senate majority leader Bob Dole made one of the most startling 10-foot-pole endorsements of Mr. Trump last week. The 92-year-old told The New York Times that Mr. Trump could “probably work with Congress, because he’s, you know, he’s got the right personality and he’s kind of a deal-maker.” Mr. Trump hasn’t given much indication that he wants to work “with” Congress, and even GOP members would have little incentive to cast many tough votes for a president who will have little to do with financing or winning their own races, but hope springs eternal that a new president can solve 21st-century gridlock on Capitol Hill.
Green Lanternism even explains the flurry of stories about former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg considering an independent campaign for the White House. One Bloomberg adviser told The New York Times that voters want “a nonideological, bipartisan, results-oriented vision.” But expecting results in Washington from an independently elected president is superhero thinking at its most extravagant. Besides, if Mr. Trump makes it through the Republican primaries, “a nonideological, bipartisan, results-oriented vision” is exactly what he’ll try to sell to the general electorate.