Is Obama the new Jimmy Carter?

As the crucial midterm elections approach, President Obama faces an outpouring of anger unmatched since Jimmy Carter held office. And the parallels with another 'White House failure' don't end there, writes Rupert Cornwell

Tuesday 05 October 2010 00:00

Aliving ghost stalks American politics. At the age of 86, Jimmy Carter the man is very much with us, more prolific than ever. His just-published White House diaries cover swathes of bookstore shelves, among their main selling points the claim that Ted Kennedy – yes, the same Saint Ted of universal coverage, who died last summer – deliberately blocked Carter's own comprehensive health reform plan back in 1978. Some political feuds have life beyond the grave.

Which brings us to Jimmy Carter the ghost. Carter's single-term presidency may have perished three decades ago, a brief and unfondly remembered Democratic parenthesis in a Republican era. But its unhappy shade haunts the campaign for November's midterm elections. Barely a month before the vote, which could produce an outpouring of voter frustration and anger unmatched in a generation, the Carter administration has become the parallel of choice for the increasingly troubled rule of Barack Obama.

The White House itself, of course, is not on the line on 2 November, but Obama's prestige and authority will be. Midterm elections are traditionally seen as a half-term verdict on the President, at which his party usually loses seats. This one, however, could be the most stinging interim thumbs-down in a generation. Mr Obama's Democrats are widely expected to lose the House of Representatives, and they may become a minority in the Senate too.

Like history, American presidencies never repeat themselves exactly. But as Mark Twain would have observed, they rhyme – and since January 2009, the rhymes have changed ominously. The comparisons are a measure of Obama's fall from grace. Two years ago, his election was hailed as a second coming of John F Kennedy, even of FDR. Now the name most frequently evoked is Carter's.

Since leaving office, Carter has been probably the most prolific and internationally active ex-President ever – author, peacemaker and troubleshooter, who has deftly turned himself into America's good conscience. But Carter is considered a failure in the White House. To label Obama a second Carter so soon is unfair – not least because Carter's presidency only really fell apart in its final 18 months, while Obama has not yet even reached the halfway mark. But since when was politics fair? And undeniably, the parallel has a veneer of plausibility.

Both can point to notable achievements. In office, Carter brokered the Camp David accords, secured ratification of the Panama Canal treaty and created a Department of Energy; while Obama, despite unrelenting Republican opposition, has already pushed through health-care and regulatory reform, as well as a record stimulus package that may have averted a second Great Depression.

Both, beyond argument, are exceptionally intelligent men, with a rare ability to get to the heart of a problem. But both have seen their rationality – their ability to see the world not as they would like it to be, but as it is – attacked as weakness. Somewhat illogically, however, Obama, just as Carter was 30 years ago, has also been accused of surrounding himself with a palace guard of intimates who have cut him off from the real world. Last but not least, both are Nobel Peace Prize winners.

A large part of their respective troubles stem from the excessive expectations Americans invest in their Presidents. In economic matters especially, the man in the White House is supposed to have well-nigh supernatural powers to end recessions, banish unemployment, and keep incomes and house prices rising.

This is doubly true for Presidents like Carter and Obama who come from nowhere, who have little or no "form" in Washington. The humble, post-Watergate Carter as he walked the length of his inauguration route in January 1977, Obama as he delivered his inauguration address to millions on the Mall – both at that moment symbolised a break from an unlamented past. The slate was wiped clean. A new and brilliant era is supposed to dawn.

True, the new man in charge can for a while blame his predecessor, and Obama did so, pointing to the poisoned chalice of two foreign wars, a crumbling economy and a financial system on life support, passed to him by George W Bush.

Unfortunately, although Presidents are not omnipotent, the American system demands they campaign by making promises as if they are. And the grace period is short. Unfortunately, the new and brilliant Obama era has obstinately refused to dawn, and it will be years yet until the 2008 meltdown and its consequences are purged from the system.

Fairly or unfairly, this is now Obama's economy, not Bush's, and on 2 November he will pay the price, in what most experts predict will be the loss by Democrats of the House of Representatives, conceivably of the Senate too, as well as the governorships of several major states like Pennsylvania and Ohio, perhaps even California.

In fact, compared to Obama, Carter had it easy. His 1978 midterms came when his approval rating was a relatively comfortable 52 per cent (Obama's right now are in the mid-40s and falling). Certainly, the economy was rocky through most of Carter's term, but the recession was mild compared to the one most Americans feel they are still living through, even though statisticians have now determined it ended nearly 18 months ago.

What doomed him were outside events, for which his predecessor Gerald Ford could not be blamed – the second oil shock of 1979, originating in the Iranian revolution and causing inflation and recession, and above all the daily humiliation of the Americans taken hostage in Tehran, that dominated his final 14 months.

Carter's vice-president Walter Mondale well remembers how the public turned against their once-imagined saviour. "People think the President is the only one who can fix their problems," Mondale told The New Yorker last month. "When a person loses a job or can't feed his family or can't keep his house, he is no longer rational. They become angry and they strike out – and that's what we have now. If you're President they say, 'Do something'."

Carter tried to do something, by telling the country the truth, in his so-called "Malaise" address of July 1979. In his televised speech, he in fact never used the word "malaise". But that was what he was talking about, in language that could sum up the national mood in this autumn of 2010 of American discontent.

The country, he declared, was afflicted by a crisis of confidence "that strikes at the very heart and soul and spirit of our national will". Americans had lost their unity of purpose, "the erosion of our confidence in the future is threatening to destroy the social and the political fabric of America".

And Carter was not finished. Washington DC had become "an island" cut off from the rest of country and the gap between citizens and government had never been as wide. "The people are looking for honest answers, not easy answers; clear leadership, not false claims and evasiveness and politics as usual."

But in one crucial sense, Carter had it wrong. A country that had suffered no real hardship since the Depression almost half a century earlier, and believed its Presidents were miracle-workers, was indeed looking for easy answers. Americans want easy answers again now – and the politicians are obliging, with the same old false claims, evasiveness and politics-as-usual that Carter denounced.

This is a rare moment when, seen from abroad, British politics actually looks rather impressive. A hung election produced the first coalition government since the Second World War, which has come up with a serious plan to put the country's finances back in order. Everything may end in tears, after the details are published on 20 October. At least, however, they've tried.

In the US, by contrast, nothing. As the deficit increases, and income disparities continue to grow, name-calling passes for serious debate. The only economic argument is over whether top earners should have their tax rates put back up to where they were before 2001, from 35 per cent to 39 per cent.

Like Carter before him, Obama at least tries to tell the truth – that the road back will be long, and that the US must change its profligate ways, above all in its use of energy. But this White House has yet to come up with a serious deficit-reduction plan. As for the Republicans, their new "Pledge to America" is basically warmed-over Bushery, gushing on about tax cuts, but refusing to be specific about the spending cuts to pay for them. The rise of China and other fast-industrialising countries, and the crash of 2008 might never have happened.

Rarely have the prospects for constructive compromise looked bleaker. In Carter's day, moderates abounded in both parties. Now, in Republican ranks especially, moderates are a vanishing species. Compromise happens in the centre, but the centre is vanishing.

Obama must contend with a ferocious partisanship and bloody-mindedness, visible in the culture of filibusters and permanent warfare on Capitol Hill, and magnified by internet bloggers, and talk-show hosts venting into the echo chamber of a 24/7 cable-news cycle. He faces adversaries who question his patriotism – even whether he is an American citizen, or a Christian, at all.

During his book promotion tour, Carter went so far as to suggest that polarisation in Washington now might even be worse than just before what he quaintly called "the initiation of the war between the states". He was exaggerating, of course; no one predicts a second Civil War. Certainly, however, Carter again had it easy by comparison. CNN was not launched until June 1980, while Fox News, supreme tormentor of the Democrats, did not appear on the scene until mid-1996. And of course, in Carter's day there was no anti-government Tea Party movement, taking its very name from an earlier American war.

Whatever happens, 2 November will probably be brutal for the Democrats. In the midterms of 1978, the party lost 15 seats in the House and three in the Senate – but it would be a miracle akin to walking on water if Obama's party escaped as lightly now. Indeed, its best hope is that the scorched-earth rhetoric of Tea Party-backed Republicans scares centrist and independent voters who supported Obama in 2008 but who have since deserted in droves back into the fold.

But something else is missing too. On that election night of 4 November 2008, amid the euphoria of the victory rally in Chicago's Grant Park, it seemed that Obama could indeed walk on water.

Carter might not have been been a great communicator, but Obama most certainly is – or at least, he was. He remains the master explainer. But there is a detached and professorial side to Obama that seems to recoil from the raw emotion that politics sometimes demand, bred perhaps of a conviction that even in crisis people will be rational, so long as their predicament is set out with sufficient clarity. Walter Mondale would beg to differ.

Rarely these days does Obama uplift. Even when he is engaged, he seems oddly disengaged. Carter by his own admission in an afterword to his diaries, was too "rigid and autocratic" to be a natural politician. Nor, it often seems these days, is Obama much of a natural politician either.

There are times you half wonder – does he really even want a second term? And if he didn't, you could hardly blame him. Be like Bill, urge Obama's Democratic critics, telling him to take a leaf out of the Great Empathiser's book, and "feel people's pain". But could even Bill Clinton have cheered America up amid as painful, long-lingering a crisis as this, when so many feel vulnerable?

It's hard not to sense a watershed at these mid-term elections. Many experts argue the US is already close to ungovernable. If the polls are correct, the country will be even less governable after these elections. Republicans are riding the Tea Party tiger to the right, while a thinning of Democratic ranks would push their opponents further to the left. The two sides would be bound only by an uneasy sense of national decline. Of course, Obama would not be the first modern President identified with national decline. That distinction belongs to a certain Jimmy Carter.

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