Portrait of a Failed Presidency: "What the Heck Are You Up To, Mr. President?" by Kevin Mattson

The fall in Barack Hussein Obama’s poll numbers, the difficulties he and his program have faced, naturally prompt comparisons to that emblematic Democratic presidential failure James Earl Carter.

Enter “Obama Carter” into a popular search engine, and you’ll find commentaries like this one from Seth Leibsohn at the National Review, reflecting on the President’s recently completed visit to Asia:

This is reminiscent of the Jimmy Carter years — the last time the U.S. was seen as weak — unable to move and coax other countries, unable to reassure dependent allies, unable to have the respect of the world and, of course, unable to move the mullocracy of Iran.

Already in July, Matt Welch and Nick Gillespie were invoking Carter in the op-ed pages of the Washington Post:

Barely six months into his presidency, Barack Obama seems to be driving south into that political speed trap known as Carter Country: a sad-sack landscape in which every major initiative meets not just with failure but with scorn from political allies and foes alike.

Carter 2.0, Carter^2, worse even than Jimmy Carter… We’re still only in year one of the Age of Obama, but, if the bloggers and pundits are right about our man, if he doesn’t halt and reverse his decline soon, historian Kevin Mattson’s “What the Heck Are You Up To, Mr. President?” – the story of the third year of the Carter presidency, organized around the famous “malaise speech” – may be a sketch of things to come: not just one or two grand catastrophes, but one botch of a fiasco of a screw-up after another…

Poor, poor pitiful Jimmy Carter began 1979 in bad political shape – his centerpiece energy program having already stalled, the afterglow of the Egyptian-Israeli peace agreement quickly fading, his approval ratings plummeting amidst seemingly intractable double digit inflation – and it got worse from there: the Three Mile Island nuclear accident; the worst plane crash in US commercial history; the fall of the Shah and rise of Khomeini; an assassination plot; a cynical populace seemingly uninterested in what any politician had to say; charismatic challengers rising both on the right and from within the president’s own party on the left… and the death of John Wayne, and an assault by a killer rabbit. As though to make it inescapably clear that the Carter Presidency lacked the Mandate of Heaven, even the national 4th of July celebrations in Washington DC were rained out, and a week later Skylab came crashing to Earth…

The worst problems for the country, the strongest blows to national morale, were not any of the above, however, but rather the fuel shortages severe enough to force rationing, cause panic-buying, and bring declarations of emergency amidst strikes and riots. Yet in Mattson’s rendering, the final, hardest thing for Carter himself to deal with – harder even than having 29-year-old über-pollster Pat Caddell shouting in his ear about a national moral apocalypse – was being Jimmy Carter. Carter didn’t just fail to cope with the country’s “malaise” (a word associated with him, but voiced by the Democrats’ foolish wise man of the era, Clark Clifford) , and Carter didn’t just contribute to the malaise: Carter identified with and thus turned himself into a symptom of malaise – part of a decade-long funk from which the country, when given a chance at the ballot box, would at last vote to rouse itself.

During this difficult period, when many Americans might have appreciated some encouragement, Carter preferred dire pronouncements and pointless I-told-you-so’s. As the gas crisis of ’79 intensified, he reminded Americans of his past warnings going back at least to his Inaugural, and had no re-assurance to offer: “The energy future will not be pleasant,” he said. Near the peak of the crisis, he had this statement for the worst afflicted: “I don’t want to mislead you. It’s going to get worse.” Spurred on by Caddell while overruling advisers, Carter seemed almost to delight in pessimistic, sermonizing language. In Q&A at the annual meeting of the Democratic National Committee in May, he spoke off-the-cuff of “unpleasant facts” and the unlikelihood that “somehow or another a miracle is going to occur and a lot of oil is going to be released from secret hiding places.” He took the smattering of applause as a sign he and Caddell were on to something.

By July Carter returned from a luckless foreign trip to a country that seemed “like one large gas line.” His approval rating was in the 20s, as low or lower than Nixon’s during the depths of Watergate. He scheduled (yet another) televised speech on energy, and then, in a first for presidents, canceled it and headed off to Camp David without explanation, igniting an explosion of rumors amidst a cloud of confusion, and prompting the question from the New York Post‘s editors that Mattson has lifted for his title.

Even upper White House staff were unsure of the answer when helicoptered out to Camp David. What had happened was that Carter had at the last minute rejected the uninspired text his writers had put together for him, and had decided instead to confront the national “crisis of confidence” that Caddell had been analyzing all year long. Mattson describes what ensued as “one of the longest and most gruesome meetings in the history of the Carter administration”:

On July 5, from three forty P.M. until almost midnight, Eizenstat, Powell, Jordan, Rafshoon, and Mondale duked it out in the Laurel Lodge, with Rosalynn shuffling in and out. The gloves came off. Eizenstat screamed that Caddell’s ideas were “bullshit.” Mondale fought off a nervous breakdown, arguing that if Caddell’s ideas were put into a speech that the president might be thought crazy at worst and out of touch at best. Telling Americans of a psychic crisis – the kind that Caddell seemed obsessed with – made Carter sound like he was blaming them for the energy crisis…. Powell and Jordan acted as mediators as this argument shaped up, trying to prevent things from getting out of control. But no matter what they did, it felt like the Carter presidency had melted down.

Over the next 10 days, Carter held a series of hastily organized meetings – dubbed a “domestic summit” – with political, religious, and other cultural leaders (almost exclusively from the left and far left), while his speechwriting staff, led by Hendrik Hertzberg, worked to meld the main lessons, along with a re-jiggered energy program, Caddell’s ideas, and Carter’s own longstanding inclinations, into an address.

On July 15, Carter came on at ten P.M. on the East Coast, interrupting broadcasts of The Gambler with James Caan and Moses the Lawgiver starring Burt Lancaster. The following YouTube is cued to the point where Carter turns from introductory remarks to current events. I recommend listening for about one minute, to around 2:28:

It’s tempting simply to dismiss Carter’s approach as pathetically un-presidential – to see, for instance, the carefully coached hand gestures as impotent grasping – but Mattson emphasizes that the initial response was largely positive, including an overnight boost of 11 points in Carter’s dismal approval ratings. The people did not immediately reject a call to sacrifice and moral introspection. Soon, however, Carter’s old enemy – himself – appeared yet again. Within two days, Carter destroyed any chance of capitalizing on his new momentum. In a long-planned but ill-timed and clumsily executed move, he demanded the resignations of his entire cabinet.

Americans experienced whiplash, no longer hearing about the energy policy or the civic crisis, but about cabinet disloyalty and government implosion… The “crisis of confidence” speech had successfully seared Americans’ attention, but the cabinet firings scattered it once again and thus returned it to apathy, anger, and confusion… All the president’s men scrambled to figure out what to do as the high ground briefly won by the speech passed into chaos.

In short order, 71% of poll respondents were acknowledging doubt in the president’s “basic competence.” By the first week of August, the editors at the New Republic published Carter’s political obituary: “The past two weeks will be remembered as the period when President Jimmy Carter packed it in, put the finishing touches on a failed presidency.”

In the next months, Carter’s rivals countered his pessimism in exactly the way Mondale and others predicted. Formalizing an insurgent leftwing candidacy, Ted Kennedy, who had been appalled by the malaise speech from the moment he heard it, sought to invoke America’s “golden promise.” Taking leadership of a newly minted coalition of urban, often Jewish intellectuals (the first “neocons”) and grassroots, often Christian evangelical conservatives (including the just-launched “Moral Majority”), the equally appalled Ronald Reagan, in his formal announcement, declared that that he saw “no national malaise” and “nothing wrong with the American people.”

Interestingly, though the show might really have been over as of July 17, the public still seemed willing to give their wayward president more chances. Carter’s overnight post-speech boost in the polls, failed to register, but his standing steadily recovered anyway:


Confounding the predictions of many informed observers, who expected energy to dominate American politics for another decade, both the issue and Carter’s failure to address it gradually disappeared from view along with Summer gas shortages. The foreign policy disasters that closed the year are more frequently recalled, it seems to me – the hostages seized in Iran in November, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December. In their own day, however, they seem to have had either no political effect or even an initially positive one. It wasn’t until the Desert One hostage rescue attempt foundered, the economy worsened again, and the presidential campaign began in earnest that Carter’s personal numbers turned back south.

The polling history does not make Mattson wrong to have organized his narrative around the big speech and the months leading up to it, though I’m less inclined than he is to see the event as a great missed opportunity. We’ll never know what those approval numbers would have looked like if Carter had either never given the address or had followed through on it. In at least one important respect, Mattson’s narrative confirms both the longer term view and the counter-intuitive polling results. It reminds us on almost every page that presidential failure, like lesser failures, is rarely the product of a single error or event, or even of a set of errors. It’s something the man at the top and all the men and women below him renew every day, because it emerges from who and what they really are, from what the times really demand of them and find them unable to deliver.

Those ever in a hurry to declare the current (or any) presidency over can probably afford to take their time and gather their evidence: If the President is as wrong or even wronger than they think, they can be confident that the political marathon of horror will continue more or less indefinitely, the bad days far outnumbering the good ones. Next week, month, and year, and the years after, will likely feature more of the same – even if intermittent successes and strokes of political theater advance the Obamaist agenda, and even if short memories, a willingness to forgive and forget, and a rally-round-the-flag effect convert tragic errors and omissions into political pluses.

On the other hand, if Obama is even a little bit better than they think, he may yet recover: Even Jimmy Carter almost overcame Jimmy Carter.

19 comments on “Portrait of a Failed Presidency: "What the Heck Are You Up To, Mr. President?" by Kevin Mattson

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  1. I think that we are currently in a tradition of governmental incompetence that began in 1964,and each of us can make a good case for our favorite worst President. Mine is Nixon;nothing that Carter did and nothing that Obama could come up with can compete with Nixon;he was a genius of Presidential Chaos.

  2. What did JFK do to escape your wrath?

    One of the reactions to Carter’s failure on the part especially of people like Arthur Schlesinger was to declare that the presidency must be an outmoded institution – that the country was “ungovernable – that no one could be a successful president. You personally may prefer to believe that RWR flubbed the gig, and that GHWB, El BJ, and W all were worse, but it’s not until recently that media apologists have begun reviving that theme, desperate for an excuse that doesn’t implicate approaches to governance that they favor.

  3. CKM: Today’s “Day By Day” cartoon makes your point in pictures, and the picture is even more bleak.

    Can you link us Zombies to it?

    This is far worse than the Carter incompetency.

  4. Carter was a piker, with Obama just comparing their first year in office. At 10.2 (closer to 17%
    unemployment, before the inevitable
    hyperinflation and interest rate spike, there hasn’t quite been a Halloween massacre, type purge of Langley, but not for lack of trying. With the Russians ruefully suggesting a possible first strike, the Iranians announcing ten more nuclear facilities, the upcoming show trials in NY. ‘interesting times’ my friends

  5. You could be right, narciso – but Ø still has a way to go before 71% of the population has turned against him. Even after Afghanistan, the hostages, 20% inflation, and the collapse of his central program, Carter still almost got back to 50% approval.

    My main point though was that if Ø’s really as bad as he seems, the hits are going to keep on coming, and coming…

  6. @ narciso:

    inevitable hyperinflation and interest rate spike

    I don’t know about hyperinflation; but a lot of treasury debt is coming due each month on top of something like a trillion in new deficit just as countries around the world are getting leery about holding dollar denominated bonds. Interest rates on government bonds are almost certainly going to have to rise if enough new bonds are to be sold. And rising rates would not seem good for a recovery, if we have begun one.

  7. Right I’m just making the comparison between now and 1977. The Shah of Iran was still on his throne, although the Ayatollah’s transfer
    from Najaf to Paris, would hasten his departure.
    Pannetta tried to pull a Turner, but that didn’t hold so far. Now interest rates will like spike and we really didn’t get around to fixing that
    subprime problem, with the resetting rates

  8. I do think there’s a significant chance that we are unutterably screwed, worse than in the ’70s, maybe much worse, though, even then, I’m not sure how much of it would stand as mainly Oslash;’s fault.

  9. @ CK MacLeod:

    I’m not sure how much of it would stand as mainly Oslash;’s fault.

    We’re screwed if we continue applying more drags on the economy as solutions to the problems caused by the currently in place drags.

    Which brings me to why I selected the quote above.

    Fault doesn’t matter. The question that matters is blame. Roosevelt managed to blame Hoover and sustain his popularity all the way through a depression his policies almost unquestionably made worse. Rex takes the blame for our current problems all the way back to Nixon. There is more than a grain of truth in that position; but I find it interesting that Rex’s proposed solutions are statist ones, even though he seems to be seeing former statist solutions as the cause.

    If President Obama manages to shift the blame onto what the Democrats call “deregulation” and lack of “fairness” he can pull a Roosevelt and spend eight years maintaining popularity by taking actions that will drive the economy down from its knees to where it’s fully prostrate.

    It may be turn out to be a good thing that the Democrats strongly control both the White House and the Congress this year and next.

  10. @ Sully:
    Well, on the bright side, though OT, I figured out how to give you the feature you asked for earlier today, where you can quote someone from the comments and stick it in the sidebar. I’m too eye-strained right now to refine the formatting, but you can see an example in the sidebar now under “SAID IN A THREAD.” Maybe you can come up with a more clever name.

    It works approximately like your poetry app. The Category is Say What? I will later attempt to instruct you and the other authors on an easy way to use it, though my guess is that you’ll just go ahead and do it, or not, however you feel like doing it anyway…

  11. Sully wrote:
    If President Obama manages to shift the blame onto what the Democrats call “deregulation” and lack of “fairness” he can pull a Roosevelt and spend eight years maintaining popularity by taking actions that will drive the economy down from its knees to where it’s fully prostrate.

    I’m guessing that that moment has passed, for now – we’re short-cutting to a rightwing populist reaction against his doubling down via Congress and the Fed on financialized neo-liberalism (my fave neo-Marxianism, you may recall).

    Not that circumstances couldn’t bring leftwing populism to the fore again in some new configuration, or that he might not be able to find some other way to maintain power while driving the economy and a lot else to full prostration…

    Fingers crossed he’s just the big doofus of a beauty queen he seems to be…

  12. @ CK MacLeod:

    Now all we need is the image of Mister Peanut popping up whenever I post.

    Or, a monocled Mr. P gravatar for The Black Knight would be very interesting.

    TBK could switch to a persona which yells at us zombies for dissing him.

  13. “even then, I’m not sure how much of it would stand as mainly Oslash;’s fault.” says CKM

    “Fault doesn’t matter. The question that matters is blame.” says Sully

    “The Rich are Different from us” Fitzgerald

    “They have more money” say Hemingway

    “History didn’t begin in Jan. 2009”,says RCAR

  14. And in the end, the things that most here seem to hate about former presidents is being done all at once by this one. All of O-slash’s fixes are statists ones that do more harm, and his pragmatic, realist foreign policy left wing is essentially beginning to call him “above his paygrade”. Even fuster is having trouble supporting his actions.

    I predicted this before he was ever elected and now the question to ask is will his ever greater cratering support levels stop him before he can do health care and cap and trade and kill America. That was his focus, thankfully he has a very lazy streak which allowed him to subcontract his work instead of driving it himself. But when you are perhaps the singularly least qualified candidate to run for president in the history of either major party (and when the other three people on the ballot had more experience than him and we know there was a lot to be desired with them) perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that he is having trouble getting things done. I guess voting present all the time wasn’t a big enough sign.

    I enjoyed the post for its walk down memory lane. What days those were.

  15. JEM wrote:
    I enjoyed the post for its walk down memory lane. What days those were.

    If I’d been more interested in “reviewing” or selling the book than in the political history, I would have dwelled more on Mattson’s evocation of the times. He does a great job of tying the cultural background to the political foreground: the top hits of the moment (“Heart of Glass”), Bob Dylan announcing he was born again, Joan Baez breaking with the remnant anti-war movement to attack N Vietnam over the Boat People, the rise of the Moral Majority, the growing influence of the Neocons, the meaning of the Deer Hunter (Best Picture ’79 over Coming Home) vs the still incomplete Apocalypse Now (which Coppola screened at the WH, soliciting advice), the Culture of Narcissism, Woody Allen’s Manhattan, the China Syndrome, Studio 54, Jerry Rubin’s me-decade self-realization stuff, and on and on…

  16. @ Mike:
    Bah. People today have no standards.
    When was the last time you heard Pat Boone on the radio singing “Long Tall Sally” or “Ain’t That a Shame”?

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