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-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 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.