So how close is President Obama to President Jimmy Carter in terms of public perception? Although there are many superficial similarities, many on the Right are attempting to align the two men in order to promote the idea that a neo-Reagan will arrive in 2012. But the two Presidents are quite different from each other in many other respects—not as superficially, at any rate; perhaps merely ficially.
Let us consider. Both men were elected mostly as a reaction to the excesses of the previous administration, and saw their popularity decline over time. Of course, the same could be true of Richard Nixon and George W. Bush, although each of them were re-elected. The point is that the conclusion of an election usually has nothing to do with the resulting Presidency. This ironic twist is something our current President is only now beginning to understand.
Indeed, Carter failed to learn any of this at all. His recent memoirs are filled with evidence that, even today, reveal his profound lack of understanding about the events of his time and how they shaped our world today. And this is stunning, because in many ways the Carter presidency is arguably one of the best understood. With the benefit of hindsight we are able to identify each misstep and assumption his administration made, and pinpoint the eventual conclusion. While it may seem unfair to rely on hindsight, the sad fact is that numerous people were reaching the same conclusions back when this was all foresight in the late 1970s. It was easy to predict this stuff, back then, and lots of us did.
The ease with which we can look at the obvious shortcomings of the Carter years makes it much easier for us to create dire warnings for President Obama. We see commonalities in the world events, and quickly say “You are exactly like President Carter!” President Obama fails to see any comparison between himself and Carter, and rejects the advice accordingly. Instead, we should say “Don’t be like Carter,” for indeed there is considerable contrast between the two.
The biggest differentiator between the two is this: Carter ruled with his heart, but not his head; and Obama rules with his head, but not his heart.
For example, we can look at Iran. Even when the evidence was practically screaming that something ugly and evil was happening in Iran, Carter felt that things would work out, and hoped that events would sort themselves out. He wanted the situation to return to order and calm. When the hostages were taken, he wished they would be released unharmed. In other words, he was given warnings about Iran, but lacked the resolve and competence to deal with them swiftly and decisively.
In 2010, when Iran is going on the offensive and seeks to spread its holy terror on its neighbors and beyond, President Obama understands the risks full well. He knows that a nuclear Iran will change the politics of the Middle East forever, and that America will be at a disadvantage. But he simply does not care: he is convinced that rationality and common sense wil prevail, and that a simple session of negotiation and sanctions will result in Tehran apologizing and going back to quiet neighborly behavior.
Both came into office during an economic problem, which each made worse. For Carter, he faced high inflation and high interest rates. He felt bad about this. He wanted us to see that times were tough for him too, and he sympathized by wearing a sweater on cold nights, and pretended to carry his own luggage on trips, and practically had photographers showing Roslyn cutting coupons out of the Penny Saver at the kitchen table. Because he hoped we would see how he was suffering with us. All feelings, but no substance. He just did not understand the issues, and lacked clear economic fundamentals.
President Obama entered office with high unemployment and a collapsed housing market. He cared little for the average person out of work with an upside-down mortgage: we should just buck up. None of this was his fault, and he accepts no responsibility, particularly when taking high-profile vacations and throwing expensive dinner parties. Instead, we should see all he has done: certain obscure mathematical models show that dumping a lot of tax dollars on a variety of different civic projects will stimulate job creation and a return to economic growth. Venn diagrams on a white board agree it will work; common sense will do the rest. Let us put aside the reality that none of his plans work: that isn’t his fault, but the Republicans’ who oppose union labor, superlative taxes for the upper 20%, and green technology.
War was another factor. Carter came into office during the Cold War at a point when thaws between the US and the Soviet Union, and thaws between the US and China, were again frosting up. Carter could have continued the Nixon agenda of meeting with Russia (or China), and agreeing that the problem was with China (or Russia), and that each superpower was acting in its own best interests. Carter elected to use a method called detente, which had many definitions. The net result, and the definition Carter favored, was one of indifference to what the other side was doing, provided they didn’t mind us doing the same thing. Because, Carter believed, they want to be friends with us. He hoped the Soviets could be played like a willing chess opponent. He wished the Chinese were sincere about making post-Mao reforms. The problem with a Cold War is that it is a war of calculation, risk, and cost/benefits; you cannot fight a Cold War hoping the other sides will play fair. His hopes and wishes took precendence over the cold tactical realities so perfectly exploited by Nixon and Kissinger.
President Obama, by contrast, arrived with hot wars in progress. As a candidate, he opposed Bush’s surge-forward strategy in Iraq but rejected the maintain-even-pressure strategy in Afghanistan; as President, he realized he realized he was wrong about both. The surge was working in Iraq, and he looked foolish for having opposed it. In Afghanistan, he attempted to ratchet up the pressure, and the situation has become obviously worse. But as he has made quite clear, President Obama does not care about the wars. He is not interested in victory, and privately thinks the military is a bad thing. Again, he has little stomach for war, and would rather pull the troops out of both locations as soon as possible.
In short, these are very different guys with superficially similar situations, even though their opportunities for real progress are somewhat similar. Both are making mistakes, but are making mistakes for very different reasons. Carter could not understand why he was disliked, because he intended to be such a nice guy. Obama cannot comprehend his lack of support, because he is so well-educated.
Like a dad on Christmas Eve staring at the detailed instructions for assembling a kid’s bike, Carter hopes to see an ecstatic and thankful kid, but cannot figure out the directions at all. Obama understands the directions perfectly well, but would rather get to bed first—and besides, it’s not like the kid will ride the thing before May, anyway. You just know the bike is never going to get built.