With Barack Obama heading toward clinching the Democratic nomination on March 4, his critics are making the case for voters’ remorse. Last week, Alexander Cockburn in The Nation
and New York Times
columnist Paul Krugman both analogized Obama to Jimmy Carter, whose failed presidency set back the progressive cause for decades. Both writers have been consistently skeptical of Obama, with Krugman’s hostility so overt that some wondered if he had been promised a job with the now disappearing Hillary Clinton Administration. But the fact that both would compare Obama to a 1976 candidate with little history of supporting unions, who lacked sympathy toward the problems of urban America, and who progressives consistently opposed shows that it is not only Republicans who are hoping Obama fails.
Mislabeling Obama as the New Jimmy Carter:
For those too young to recall Jimmy Carter’s road to the White House and his Presidency, be grateful. The Jimmy Carter that later emerged as an international human rights activist was a much different figure in the 1970’s, when his politics and political style were far closer to today’s Senator Joe Lieberman than to any of the leading Democratic contenders for President.
In 1976, I had a seminar at UC Berkeley on Wednesday mornings with a liberal professor who grew up in the South and was ecstatic that Democratic primary voters were backing Georgian Jimmy Carter. We spent the beginning of every class discussing the preceding night’s primary, with us students aghast that the Democrats would nominate a candidate whose main argument was that he was “born again” and would “not lie to the American people.”
Carter’s appeal was entirely based on a unique historic moment. In the wake of Watergate and Richard Nixon’s resignation, a candidate’s commitment not to lie was enough to propel a one-time Georgia Governor temperamentally unsuited to the presidency to the White House.
It takes a bizarre understanding of history to analogize such a figure to Barack Obama. Yet Alexander Cockburn writes in the March 3 The Nation (out last week), that “Obama reminds me of Jimmy Carter in 1976, talking about the need for a government as good as the American people. That kind of flattery always goes down well.” Cockburn satirically notes “the beauty” of Obama’s in “talking vaguely about the audacity of hope and the need for change,” and alleges that both he and Carter even have the “same national security advisor: Zbigniew Brezinski.”
Cockburn’s ramblings would not be worth comment if they were not joined by Paul Krugman’s February 22 Times column (“Don’t Rerun That 70’s Show”), which falls just short of explicitly predicting than an Obama presidency will resemble the failed Carter Administration.
Without mentioning Obama, Krugman reminds readers that Jimmy Carter “began his administration with words of uplift---‘Let us create together a new national spirit of unity and trust’—and ended up delivering American into the hands of the hard right.”
In other words, Krugman sees an historic analogy between Obama’s calls for unity and Carter’s similar call resulting in America’s shift to the right. In fact, if this Krugman column is read in conjunction with his previous attacks on Obama for allegedly being too willing to compromise, what Krugman is really saying last week is that electing Obama could easily plunge the nation into Carter-era stagflation.
Obama is No Jimmy Carter:
Jimmy Carter ran for president as a stern, moral taskmaster who would not be quick to compromise. No president has ever done more to consciously dispel national optimism -- remember his speech in which he told the country it was suffering from a “malaise.”
Carter’s personality in 1976 was 180 degrees different from Obama’s today. And whereas critics accuse Obama of offering “false hopes,” that charge would never have been leveled against Carter, who never promised to bring meaningful change
Organized labor never aligned with Carter, but strongly backs Obama. Progressives typically saw Carter as a sanctimonious prig, and never supported him from his first day in office to his re-election campaign.
Unlike Obama, whose political campaigns have always depended on progressive support and who sees the Democratic left as critical allies, Jimmy Carter never trusted progressives. And the feeling was mutual. That’s why progressives backed Ted Kennedy in a rare primary challenge to an incumbent Democratic president in 1980, and why many voted for either John Anderson or Barry Commoner of the Citizen’s Party in the November 1980 election.
Obama may have less in common with Carter than any prior Democratic President. But the Carter Administration has long embodied the collective failures of the Democratic Party, and is the typical bogeyman for critics of Democratic candidates.
Journalists are a cynical bunch by nature, and it is understandable that some are getting cranky at all the positive energy generated by the Obama campaign. But advancing the notion of Barack Obama as the second coming of Jimmy Carter is a sure sign that, as Obama suggested in last week’s debate, the political “silly season” has arrived.