Remember the heady days of 2008 and 2009 when Barack Obama was heralded as the “smartest man ever to be elected president?” Remember when he won the Nobel Peace Prize after less than one year in office? Remember when more than one liberal historian routinely compared him to Franklin Roosevelt or Abraham Lincoln?
What a difference three years makes. Approaching his third anniversary in office, President Obama looks more and more like a former president, our 39th chief executive James Earl Carter.
Start with style. Both Carter and Obama were mainly unknown to the American public when elected. Both campaigned on a platform to change the way Washington does business. Carter railed against the “Three Martini Lunch” and Obama against the “Rich” who “don’t pay their fair share.”
Both had a strong streak of morality and believed their motives pure and certainly far above the base concerns of everyone else. Both believed the world began with their election. Neither was very specific about what they would do in office, focusing instead on generalities, process, and broad statements about their openness and sincerity.
On policy, both Carter and Obama were hostile to fossil fuels and saw virtue in alternative fuels and green technologies.
Carter invested huge amounts of political capital, not to mention taxpayer dollars, in something called the “Synfuels Corporation,” which was charged with finding new clean energy sources. The program produced very little of value and was repealed a few years later.
Obama has inhibited domestic energy development in favor of a push for “green” technologies and has fueled billions in new spending, including half a billion-dollar loan guarantee to a bankrupt company named “Solyndra,” which not surprisingly, was run by some of his key financial supporters.
Both presidents focused on austerity and tax increases in a vain attempt to close budget deficits. Carter proposed gas tax increases nearly every year of his presidency and an increase in the wage tax to shore up Social Security, yet his deficit in the fall of 1980 hit $60 billion, which was real money in those days. We all know about Obama’s economic plan to raise taxes with a deficit in excess of $1 trillion and another recession looming.
It’s hard to know whose economic record is worse. Carter’s unemployment was lower, but inflation hit 18 percent at the end of his term with a prime interest rate of 21 percent. Obama doesn’t have an inflation problem yet, primarily because he has not generated any economic growth in the last two years, resulting in unemployment still in excess of 9 percent.
It’s hard to say if the housing market was worse in the late 1970s or now. These are easily the two worst economic records of any presidential administration since the Great Depression.
Both men felt Americans expected too much and needed to be reminded of our limitations. Carter was a dour man, a loner who brooded about the burdens of the presidency. His “crisis of confidence” speech in 1979, dubbed the "Malaise speech,” blamed Americans for their economic circumstances.
Obama has kept his feelings about Americans’ inadequacies in check since his memorable observation about our fascination with “God and guns” during the 2008 campaign. However, he recently noted that Americans are “going a little soft” and have “lost our competitive edge” presumably because of our constant complaining about his bad economy.
During the 1980 campaign, Carter abandoned any attempt to discuss his vision for a second term and attacked Ronald Reagan for being trigger happy, racially insensitive, and hostile to Medicare and Social Security. His campaign for re-election was one of the most negative ever.
Obama is already in campaign mode, attacking every Republican for obstructing his programs, though like Carter, he enjoyed a huge Democratic congressional majority during his first two years in office. The problem is not that his policies were blocked, but rather that they were enacted in the first place.
In the end, voters concluded that Carter just wasn’t up to the job and he lost 44 states on his way to becoming a one-term president. The public wanted to hear more than negativity and excuses from their president, a lesson that Obama will also soon learn.
Frank Donatelli is Chairman of GOPAC, the center for educating and electing a new generation of Republican leaders.
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