The Republicans claim that Barack Obama started it. He was the one, they say, who first compared himself to Jimmy Carter.
Carter has distinguished himself since leaving the presidency, performing notable acts of charity, writing and winning the Nobel Peace Prize. But politically he has one word emblazoned on his forehead: Loser.
Carter was the last Democratic president who lost a re-election bid, and Republicans are delighted to compare him to Obama, whom they hope will share the same fate.
An article in the National Review Online began: “In Ron Suskind’s new book, President Obama, in an interview with the author, compares himself to Jimmy Carter.
“‘Carter, Clinton and I all have sort of the disease of being policy wonks,’ he says, according to excerpts. Karl Rove, a former senior adviser to President George W. Bush, tells National Review Online that he is amused by Obama’s navel gazing.”
Continuing in the even-handed, measured tones for which he is known, Rove says: “The president is comfortable with a technocratic approach because he is an imperious, arrogant, know-it-all left-wing technocrat …”
The article also quotes former Newsweek editor Jon Meacham as telling Politico’s Mike Allen that Obama’s comparison to Carter is “a history-sized mistake.”
“For 30 years, fairly or no,” Meacham e-mailed Allen, “‘Carter’ has been political and cultural shorthand for an ineffectual and uninspiring president who is captive to, rather than captain of, events. To compare oneself to President Carter is kind of like Nixon evoking Harding.”
But is that what Obama really was doing? It seems to me all Obama was saying is that he, Carter and Clinton were “policy wonks” and called that, in what was probably an attempt at humor, a “disease.”
The American public usually does not like wonks, but Carter certainly did not emphasize that part of his character when he campaigned for the presidency in 1976.
Carter was the first president elected after Watergate, and the nation was seeking a president, to oversimplify a bit, who wasn’t a crook or associated with pardoning crooks. The mood was summed up by the slogan of one of Carter’s primary opponents, Henry “Scoop” Jackson, who used to tell crowds, “Some seek to make America great again; I seek to make America good again.”
Four years later, due to a variety of calamities, the mood of America had shifted, and the official theme of Ronald Reagan’s 1980 nominating convention in Detroit was, “Make America Great Again.” It worked.
Bill Clinton was, and is, a policy wonk, but he was usually careful to hide it while campaigning. Whenever he made off-the-cuff remarks to crowds and got too “professorial,” his staff used to (gently) warn him of the dangers. The “Man From Hope” video that enthralled Clinton’s 1992 convention was consciously devised to emphasize his small-town roots and down-home style, rather than his “wonky” education at Georgetown, Oxford and Yale.
Obama, who was a professor of law at the University of Chicago, a very distinguished and very “wonky” law school — it used to be far more proud of how many more law professors it produced than practicing lawyers — never campaigned as a wonk.
But not long after the National Review article appeared, John Fund wrote a column for The Wall Street Journal on Sept. 22, headlined, “The Carter-Obama Comparison Grows.”
Some of the comparisons were a little strained, however. Fund wrote: “‘He’s the great earnest bore at the dinner party,’ wrote Michael Wolff, a contributor to Vanity Fair. ‘He’s cold; he’s prickly; he’s uncomfortable; he’s not funny; and he’s getting awfully tedious. He thinks it’s all about him.’ That sounds like a critique of Mr. Carter.”
Other examples included MSNBC’s Chris Matthews making a slip of the tongue — a not uncommon occurrence on live TV — and referring to Obama as “President O’Carter” and something about how Obama didn’t want to put Carter’s solar panels back on the roof of the White House, which Fund offered as proof that the “Obama White House is clearly cognizant of the comparisons being made between the two presidents.”
Four days later, an piece by Peter Wehner on commentary.com ran under the headline “Obama Within Spitting Distance of Carter” and began: “In the summer of 1979, Jimmy Carter’s approval rating sank to its low point, 29 percent. I’m not sure if Barack Obama will reach that particular goal, but he’s making an impressive run at it.”
The articles don’t mention, however, that the Carter presidency was beset by more than a few unique problems: the Iranian hostage crisis and a botched rescue mission, an oil crisis, stagflation (a combination of high inflation, high unemployment and slow growth), the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan that led to Carter’s boycott of the Olympic Games, a primary challenge by Ted Kennedy and Carter’s having to face Ronald Reagan, a masterful campaigner, in the general election.
Obama faces a bad economy, but launched a daring military mission that killed Osama bin Laden, rescued the U.S. auto industry, prevented global economic collapse and passed a historic health care bill.
He also will not face a primary challenger, and nobody in the general election that is even the shadow of Reagan when it comes to campaigning.
And if Obama’s a policy wonk, well, better to have a policy and be wonky about it than have no policy at all.