Why It's Unlikely Obama Will Suffer Carter's Fate

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Ashley Wayne Cruseturner is an Instructor in history at McLennan Community College, Waco, TX.

A whole host of conservative commentators and bloggers have taken to predicting that the presidency of Barack Obama will replicate the tragic trajectory of the Jimmy Carter administration.  There are, of course, some parallels: both presidents broke onto the national scene as fresh-faced outsiders, dropping from the sky during unique moments in American politics in which the electorate desperately craved inexperience.  Both presidents articulated a dreamy utopian foreign policy—deemphasizing the hard-boiled “realism” of their predecessors as something unworthy of American ideals.  Moreover, as liberal hagiographists welcomed a political neophyte devoid of portfolio with extraordinarily generous comparisons to Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, and John F. Kennedy—can you really blame my conservative compatriots for counterpunching with a scorching historical analogy of their own?

Nevertheless, there are significant differences in the political topography of the two historical moments and also there seems to be even more noteworthy variances in the personalities and policy predispositions of the two presidents.  The fierce and varied forces that combined to make Jimmy Carter a one-term president appear unlikely to reemerge to make Barack Obama a Second Jimmy Carter.

1)  Barack Obama has NOT declared war on his own party as Carter did. To the contrary, President Obama has acquiesced almost entirely to his party leadership (which tends to be more liberal than the party as a whole). Therefore, this president need NOT worry about a primary insurgency on his left flank a la Ted Kennedy in 1980.  Obama’s liberal base stands contentedly in his corner for the duration.

An Aside: it is important to distinguish the real Carter from the caricature perpetuated over the years as convenient shorthand for modern presidential ineptitude.  While it is entirely correct to remember the presidency of Jimmy Carter as a colossal failure, sometimes we forget why exactly. In many ways, President Carter circa 1977 (as opposed to the rehabilitated Carter of the post-presidential years) really was a maverick and an outsider and much more conservative than the congressional leadership of his party.  His proposals to trim the budget, his bent toward deregulation, his interest in nuclear power, his quixotic gambit to root out Congressional pork, and his preference for a tight monetary policy were all measures most conservatives would applaud today. 

An Aside within an Aside: if the American people were to miraculously change course and elect a principled conservative to the presidency in 2012, the implementation of a truly conservative economic program would undoubtedly precipitate an economic “crisis of confidence” alarmingly similar to the waning days of the Carter administration.  Sound money, deep cuts in the federal budget, and a sustainable tax policy, if enacted today, would most certainly yield, at least in the short term, an economic correction (downturn) of devastating proportions.  Getting straight would be an extremely ugly endeavor.  Climbing off the Keynesian “horse” would result in violent withdrawals and an inevitably mournful public outcry. 

Serious Question: could such an austerity agenda survive enough American election cycles to succeed?

Back to 1980.  In short, Carter ran afoul of congressional Democrats as a fiscal conservative, and his infidelity to liberal orthodoxy led to fissures in the traditional base of his party.  Ironically, at the same time, his “tough love” economic policies also provided critical ammunition for the Reagan campaign in the fall of 1980: “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?”  President Obama will need to answer the “four years ago” question (more on that below), but, unlike Carter, he is NOT likely to enter the 2012 campaign with disgruntled or mutinous partisans.  Quite the opposite, his party base will likely grasp the enormous electoral stakes and offer their standard bearer near-unanimous loyalty and devotion for the upcoming Battle Royale.

2) The media hated Carter; they thought him a buffoon from the outset.  The old national media, an entirely different animal back in the late-1970s: much smaller, more monolithic, and more concerned with the appearance of objectivity, only reluctantly came to Carter’s aid late in the game.  Only when the Beltway reporters faced the prospect of Ronald Reagan talking over the reins of government—a fate they perceived as worse than the Carter presidency—did the Fourth Estate rally around the incumbent.

While dissemination of news and opinion is a multi-headed hydra in the second decade of the twenty-first century, President Obama need not worry about the remains of the mainstream media.  This Chief Executive continues to enjoy friendly coverage from the left-leaning legacy media in a way completely unprecedented in the history of the presidency and the press. Still the best educated, best paid, most widely circulated, and most respected, the mainstreamers are not just fans—they are invested in the success of this president.   The big national newspapers, newsmagazines, and major network news organizations cannot dictate the outcome of 2012—but they continue to play a substantial role.

There are those who take heart from the recent spike in not-so-gentle jibes at the hands of left-leaning cultural commentators such as SNL and Jon Stewart.  I suspect we will see less and less trenchant criticism of the President as we approach a more meaningful stage of the election cycle (just as we did for Candidate Obama in 2008).  Expect liberal satirists to find much more to lampoon within the opposition camp than with the incumbent and his campaign.  As for the numerous conservative media outlets, they continue to preach mostly to the converted—and remain a relatively marginal force in national opinion shaping.

3)  The IRANIAN HOSTAGE CRISIS proved absolutely vital to the humiliation of Jimmy Carter and the subsequent Reagan triumph. Four hundred and forty-four days of explicit American impotence at the hands of Iranian revolutionaries played out over the course of a re-election calendar.  The intense public focus on the international incident offered a permanent embodiment of the formerly elusive notion that Carter was egregiously ill-prepared as head of state. Suddenly, the Iranian debacle offered compelling material evidence that the optimistic idealism of the Carter foreign policy was not a necessary reorientation or merely a harmless public relations experiment—but a disastrous undertaking with myriad calamitous consequences.

Currently, of course, conservatives harbor a pervasive sense of alarm that the Obama worldview parallels Carter in his blissful naiveté.  From the outset of his presidency, this sense of dread has served as a conservative drumbeat: the consequences of Mr. Obama’s lack of discernment combined with his arrogance will yield an American misfortune of immense proportion (see the many utterances of Dick Cheney for example).  In fact, foreign policy is where the wobbly Carter analogy stands strongest.  This ubiquitous sense of foreboding leaves the Obama administration most at risk, as a major international stumble will fit neatly into the pre-formed template just below the surface of the political debate.  However, without a concrete incident comparable to the Iranian fiasco to crystallize public opinion and rally the masses, the rhetorical possibility of an American catastrophe fails to rise above the realm of political noise. 

4)  The Economy. If Obama had to run for reelection right now, he would be extraordinarily vulnerable. Ten percent unemployment surely equals deep political peril for any modern president.  Although FDR kept winning reelection with much worse numbers, he began with an unmatched 25 percent unemployment.  He combined modest success at reducing joblessness with a talent for creating optimism for future improvements.  The Roosevelt administration also excelled at blaming the previous president and the previous Republican Congresses. 

Of course, the Obama brain trust is mindful of the FDR strategy. Even as exhausted as the "blame Bush" mantra is to fair-minded observers—that brand of “message discipline” sinks into the cultural wallpaper of the political scene and makes an impact over the course of an administration.  But, even more promising for President Obama, and a much more appealing mode of attack than purely “blame Bush-ism,” is the potential of actually possessing a qualified success to trumpet.  The “Obama economy” could be a relative bright spot in 2012.

President Obama inherited three sober challenges on 20 January 2009: the recession, the banking crisis, and the unsustainable federal balance sheet.  In the grand scheme of things, the recession was NOT nearly as ominous as the latter two hazards. At the end of every downturn is an upturn. Historically, the President’s timing seems fortuitous. Arrive in the midst of an economic trough--and, with any luck, expect some natural expansion as a result of the economic cycle over the course of the next four years.  Add to that a $787 billion infusion of borrowed federal money, no matter how misguided or misapplied, some of which will undoubtedly stimulate growth.  Even better, if the 2010 midterms were to loosen the grip of the command-and-control Democratic congress, paradoxically, the remarkable self-healing powers of the American economy might be unleashed to the further advantage of the incumbent president. Through very little effort or perspicacity on his part, President Obama could very well preside over an improving economy during 2012.  If that happens, his reelection prospects resemble the bid of incumbent presidents Ronald Reagan in 1984 or Bill Clinton in 1996 more than Jimmy Carter in 1980.

While the Banking Crisis posed a much more dire threat, Time “Man of the Year” Ben Bernanke steered the American economy away from the 300-foot cliff.  Regardless of his boasting, the President should get recognition for little more than NOT derailing the plan of action already in place when he assumed office.  No matter, politically, to whom the credit redounds seems increasingly beside the point, as the electorate seems disinclined to appreciate the miracle, remaining mostly ignorant (or at least skeptical) that a banking cataclysm was ever actually in the offing—or, more precisely, ever posed a direct threat to “main street.”  On the other hand, all things considered, assuming the financial calamity remains forestalled, the lack of a Great Depression 2.0 remains a quiet benefit for an incumbent seeking reelection.

The Problem of Long-Term Unsustainability, which clearly presents our biggest challenge and the one that actually poses an existential threat to our survival as a nation, unfortunately, seems the obstacle the President intends to disregard and shamelessly conflate with the much more politically convenient recession.  His inaction on this front is unforgivable in the long view—but it avoids the short-term political pitfall of Jimmy Carter, who, perversely, suffered terribly for his attempt to address seriously some of the structural insecurities that threatened the American future thirty years ago.

President Obama’s decision to ignore sustainability remains the source of the amorphous apprehension that animates the Tea Party Movement, which appears a significant force on the political horizon.  But that massive anxiety only translates into actionable majoritarian anger at the ballot box when something tangible comes along as a vessel for the restlessness. Without a major national crisis clearly connectable to our unrelenting financial recklessness, the Election of 2012 will not turn on that conceptual issue—no matter how vital. Sustainability is NOT easy to explain; in fact, it is one of those abstract horrors so agonizing to digest that we prefer to pretend it less consequential for as long as possible. So, if the Great Looming Crisis does not actually materialize before Election Day 2012, our innate desire to hope for the best overshadows the collective dread and a likely “rebounding economy” arrives as a winning issue for Obama.

"Bush broke it. I am fixing it."

Of course, all of this is speculative.  If we have ten percent-plus unemployment, high inflation, high interest rates, and a international relations crisis in 2012, then Obama could very well (most likely would) meet the exact same fate as Jimmy Carter.  But, at this point, none of that looks inevitable—or even likely.

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