Charles Dunn: Obama Is Supersized Carter

Thursday, 14 Jul 2011 12:47 PM

By Charles Dunn

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Barack Obama looks like Jimmy Carter on steroids.

What dominated President Carter’s time and led to his downfall — an intractable and protracted Mid-East crisis and a persistently miserable economy — now dominate Obama’s time. Carter solved neither, and neither is Obama.

Philosophers Edmund Burke and George Santayana, respectively, put it well: “Those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it,” and “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” President Obama verifies that truth.

Swept into office with overwhelming support from Jews and Evangelicals, Carter proceeded to jettison that support. And Barack Obama now follows in his footsteps.

Jews gave Jimmy Carter 75 percent of their votes in 1976, but only 45 percent in 1980. The reason: Carter never forthrightly supported Israel as America’s foremost ally and only democracy in the Middle East. He argued that Israel had to make territorial concessions (in this case the entire Sinai) before there could be peace.

Thus it is with Barack Obama, who argues that Israel must make territorial concessions and freeze construction on land that has been Jewish for 3,500 years.

Professing and loudly proclaiming the Evangelical code words of “born again,” Carter waltzed to victory in the South’s Bible Belt in 1976, but four years later he let Ronald Reagan capture a large share of that vote. The reason: Carter never forthrightly held to such Evangelical litmus-test issues as pro-life.

As to Barack Obama, he wooed and won a significant share of the Evangelical vote in 2008 by soft-pedaling his views on abortion and homosexuality, proclaiming to be a Christian, and by appearing with prominent Evangelical leaders. But like Carter his policy positions have belied his campaign façade.

But it’s more than the issues they face. Their styles mirror one another. Both have speaking styles much like that of a college professor, long on detail and explanation and short on inspiration.

Carter, the engineer, liked to delve into the technical details of problems, while Obama, the erstwhile professor, pursues lengthy analysis. In both instances, deciding on a solution and inspirationally presenting it to the public fail them.

Ironically Carter and Obama are excellent speakers, but not in the mold of Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, and Ronald Reagan, who inspired Americans to follow a clear course of action.

In his classic book, Presidential Power, the late Richard E. Neustadt states that “Presidential power is the power to persuade.” Carter lost that power, which Obama is now losing, because key constituencies, including the general public, policy-making elites, interest groups, and Congress lost confidence in his leadership.

Carter increasingly found it difficult to lead even his own party in the Congress, a problem now confronting Obama, who has compounded his problem. Rather than clearly laying out his agenda to the Congress with specific proposals, he has let Congress fill in the blanks as to what he wants.

Critics thought that Carter had a Messianic complex, which made it difficult for him to compromise. And his famous campaign statement, “You can trust me,” quickly came back to haunt him when scandal struck his long-time friend and adviser from Georgia, Director of the Office of Management and Budget Bert Lance.

Early in his administration, Carter relied on his "Georgia Mafia" as his key advisers and shunned working with key leaders in Washington.

The ante has been upped for Barack Obama. Critics tagged him as “the anointed one,” because of his apparent condescending and superior attitude. And he, too, had his "Chicago Mafia" in key White House positions, such as Rahm Emanuel and David Axelrod.

Public opinion polling reveals substantial disenchantment with Carter and Obama. For example, Gallup reports that fewer than 50 percent of Americans approve of Barack Obama’s job performance, which puts him in the loser’s bracket along with Jimmy Carter.

Dr. Charles Dunn is a Distinguished Professor of Government at Regent University and author of "The Seven Laws of Presidential Leadership" (Pearson Prentice-Hall 2007).

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