Jim nauseam

Constant comparisons to Jimmy Carter are driving Barack batty. And they're unfair — to Jimmy Carter.
By STEVEN STARK  |  April 2, 2009

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In the early days of the Obama administration, one politically perilous warning keeps resurfacing for the man in the Oval Office: "Don't turn into another Jimmy Carter."

By pursuing too broad an agenda, warn such Democrats as William Galston, Obama risks repeating the errors of the Carter administration. This is enough of a concern that it is recognized even by overseas journalists, such as Sarah Baxter of the Times of London, who recently filed a piece entitled, " 'Jimmy Carter' Tag Has Obama Wincing."

But it's time to set the record straight. The comparison is completely unfair — not to Obama but to Carter.

At this point in his administration, Jimmy Carter (disclosure: I worked for Carter briefly in earlier days) was more popular and — believe it or not — almost as much of a phenomenon as Obama. He, too, jumped out of his limo to walk down Pennsylvania Avenue after his inaugural address, in a "first" that was remembered far more than anything that happened on January 20, 2009 (save, perhaps, for Aretha Franklin's hat). Several weeks later, Carter gave a widely praised national address on energy, sitting in a sweater in the White House. His first effort to bring the presidency back to the people — a town meeting in Clinton, Massachusetts — was deemed a huge success. And in another mid-March appearance, he took questions from viewers at home via Walter Cronkite.

That might not seem like anything earth-shattering in the 21st-century era of the permanent campaign. But at the time, in the days after Watergate, when fears of an imperial presidency were still real, it was highly innovative and hugely popular. One hundred days after Carter took office, the Harris Poll pegged his approval rating at 75 percent and Democratic wise man Clark Clifford pronounced that Carter has ushered in "a return of the confidence of the people in our government."

Even Carter's early so-called missteps look different with the passage of time. His confirmation struggles didn't concern nominees who hadn't paid taxes or a treasury secretary in bed with the industry he was trying to control. Rather, they were an attempt to bring more civilian control to the CIA by nominating former JFK aide Ted Sorensen, who faced so much Senate opposition (put up in part by the agency) that he ultimately withdrew.

Then Carter was attacked by his own party for eliminating 19 water projects without trying to seek prior congressional approval. Of course, had he done so, there would have been no cancellation of the projects. But the issue represented a larger problem: should Carter let a Democratic Congress control the agenda and pull him to the left and out of the mainstream? Or, should he try to exert his own control?

One can debate forever the sources of the political problems that eventually caused Carter to be challenged within his party by Ted Kennedy and beaten decisively in November 1980 by Ronald Reagan. But it's worth noting two things: first, Kennedy challenged Carter because the president supposedly wasn't liberal enough, even though a move to the left could well have made Reagan's autumn victory even more decisive. Second, given the problems in the world brought on by the energy crisis and rapidly rising inflation, incumbents everywhere had trouble holding onto power, whether their name was Callaghan in Britain or D'Estaing in France.

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