Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Welcome Back, Carter!

I saw that slogan on a tee-shirt recently with Barack Obama's face on it. Sadly, unless you're over 40, you may miss the joke. "Welcome Back, Kotter" was a classic 1970s TV show starring Gabe Kaplan and a very young John Travolta. Kaplan played a high school history teacher who taught the delinquent kids at his old high school (where he himself had once been one of the "sweathogs," as they were called). I've always loved this show, because my own career is so similar.

The 1970s also were the time of our 39th president, Jimmy Carter (which explains the play on words). Recently I got into a "conversation" on Facebook that I thought "blog-worthy" about the historical similarities between Carter and Obama. This is a tricky discussion, though, because Jimmy Carter is widely regarded as a failure. A 2005 survey of historians ranked him as the 34th-best president of the 43 we had experienced at that time. This is made worse by the fact that William Henry Harrison and James Garfield were nor ranked, and that he was two spots below Nixon. Of presidents in the 20th century, only Harding came in lower. So comparing our current president to Carter comes off as a cheap shot. Let me ask you to suspend the value judgements of either one, and just look at some similarities.

For starters, both were elected as the "antidote" to an unpopular Republican who wasn't even on the ticket. In 1976, with the wounds of Watergate still aching, Carter saying "I will never lie to you" was seen as the opposite of the hated Nixon. Jerry Ford, a decent fellow by all accounts, had no connection to Watergate. But Nixon had so damaged the GOP brand that "change" was the watchword of the day. Indeed, the desire to repudiate Washington in general was so strong that Carter's status as an "outsider" was seen not as inexperience, but freshness. Compare this to the 2000 election, and sub in the hated George W. Bush for Nixon, with John McCain playing the role of sacrificial lamb.

Secondly, both men came to office during a bad economy which was not of their own making. the 1970s had been experiencing stagflation and a gas crunch since back when Carter was Governor of Georgia. And it may even be true that no one could have possibly done anything about the conditions that made 1979 so bad. Likewise, Obama has the misfortune of presiding over the highest unemployment since, well, the 1970s. He didn't make it, but he'll get judged for how he handles it.

Third, in terms of leadership style, both were widely hailed as smart--Carter as a nuclear officer in the US Navy, Obama as editor of the Harvard Law Review. But both were relative novices at the game of DC politics, and struggled to get their own party (which controlled both houses of congress) to follow their leadership. Carter tried numerous economic "fixes." But the biggest knock on him was that he didn't have what it took (whether political savvy or intestinal fortitude) to make a plan, stick with it, and ride it out. Hopefully Obama gets better at that.

In terms of foreign policy, both cared deeply for the image of the USA as the "good guys" on the world stage. For Carter, this was a repudiation of Nixon's realpolitik and an embrace of human rights as a guiding principle. For Obama, it's pushing the "reset button" following 8 years of Bush's "cowboy diplomacy." Both have garnered praise for their good intentions. In Carter's case, it is said that he ignored Machiavelli's dictum regarding being loved vs. feared. Those who criticize Obama wonder the same thing aloud. Indeed, it is the same Iranian theocrats who have been a thorn in the side of both men. Both also have seen Afghanistan as a problem (albeit a very different problem).

I'm running long, but I could go on with other examples. That's enough for right now. Carter was ejected from office in a landslide in 1980, ushering in the "Reagan Revolution" and a 12-year (or more, depending upon how you see Clinton's "New Democrat" days) period of conservative ascendancy. I know many conservatives hope for a repeat--that Obama will either overreach or underachieve, and wind up discrediting liberalism for another generation.

In the long run, that might be a desired outcome (I am, after all, conservative). But I do not wish a rerun of the 1970s on my country, whether we're talking economic crisis, foreign policy weakness, polyester, or disco. If I were advising President Obama (and for some reason, he has not yet come to me for advice), I might let him know about the Costanza Principle. One more pop-culture reference: in Seinfeld, George Costanza realizes that he is a loser, and adopts a new life strategy. Whatever is his first instinct, he does the opposite, with great effects. Similarly, if Obama finds himself doing what seems Carter-esque, he needs to run, not walk, in the opposite direction. Otherwise, he runs the risk of being seen as a good fellow who makes an excellent ex-president.


Pete said...

And I thought you had fallen off the blogging map! Here I finally check back and both you & Polutta have some posts!

Goode Reads! (ooh! am I getting a new name for my blog?)

Coach Sal said...

Wow! No sooner do I write this post that Obama joins Jimmy Carter as a Nobel Peace Prize winner. And just like Carter in 2002, the prize is an endorsement of opposition to the policies of "warmonger" George W. Bush. This stuff just writes itself!

Pete said...

To be clear, G.W. was spending at a break neck pace that any Dem would envy. I know that you & I both are just as appalled at his conduct within his last term... especially the last half of his last term.