Pairing Presidents: Obama and Carter


Shakespeare observed that the "past is prologue." Is this depressing or reassuring? Hegel gloomily commented, "We learn from history that we do not learn from history. … [P]eople and governments have never learned anything from history, or acted on principles deduced from it." The flip side comes from William Faulkner, who observed, "The past is never dead. It's not even past." Are we condemned to an endless cycles of glory and stupidity, or simply part of the ebb and flow of the human condition? I'm not wise enough to answer definitively, but I can say, in this presidential election year, that every president has had an analog.

In the eleven weeks leading up to the election, I'll profile the Shakespearean prologues by working backward to pair presidents. I will use scholars' ratings of presidents, add my proverbial two-cents' worth, and (hopefully) both enlighten and provide intellectual fodder upon which to chew.

When he was elected, many hoped that Barack Obama would become the black Franklin Roosevelt. This was bad history; no president has ever had a working majority as large as that of FDR. It will probably anger Obama supporters, but the president he most resembles is Jimmy Carter.

How they are similar:

Obama and Carter are deliberate, low-key, and highly cerebral. Both are of outstanding character, moral, and scandal-free. Carter is undoubtedly our most respected ex-president and I imagine that Obama's post-presidential years will be similarly devoted to selfless public service.

Carter and Obama each took over after long Republican presidencies and represented great hope for liberals alienated by what they viewed as harmful GOP social policies–those of Reagan and George H. Bush in Carter's case, and eight years of George W. Bush in Obama's case. Both disappointed as they had limited success in moving Congress on issues such as energy conservation, gun control, reindustrialization, or environmental protection. Neither was a forceful leader. Both inherited big messes in the form of ruined economies and declining foreign relations.

Jimmy Carter failed to improve the U.S. economy, did a superb job in the realm of foreign relations. Although he is often vilified for the Iranian hostage crisis, it was Carter–not Reagan, as many believe–who negotiated hostage releases. (Nor was Reagan any stronger on Iran; he simply talked tougher.) In most other aspects, Carter's foreign policy enhanced American prestige and power. He negotiated the Camp David Accord between Israel and Egypt, the first time a Muslim nation recognized Israeli sovereignty. Conservatives beat him up over his policy of linking U.S. aid to human rights, but most of Latin America credits Carter for assisting their transformations from juntas to democracy. The same Latin Americans hailed the decision to give Panama control over the Panama Canal, another decision that infuriated conservatives but looks wise in retrospect. Finally, Carter's decision to boycott the 1980 Moscow Olympics over the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan is now viewed as one of the nails in the USSR's bankruptcy coffin.

Obama will also get higher marks from historians on the foreign policy level. He certainly patched relations abroad left torn asunder by his blundering predecessor. Obama removed U.S. troops from Iraq and had the courage to say this war should have never been fought in the first place; he has drawn down troop strength in Afghanistan, a war that's probably unwinnable. He earns high marks for shutting down war hawks within the Democratic Party (Hillary Clinton, Susan Rice, John Kerry) that urged US intervention across the globe with hazy plans of what could be accomplished or how a mission would end. Remember Osama bin Laden? Obama took him out, not the GOP howlers. Gaddafi fell in Libya after carefully orchestrated US pressure and Obama wisely resisted temptations to overreact to the Benghazi tragedy. If he gambled correctly on engaging Iran rather than further isolating it, history will be very kind to him. Normalizing relations with Cuba was simply the correct thing to do. Foreign relations improved immeasurably under Obama.

How they differ:

There is no equivalent of the Affordable Care Act on Carter's resume. The Dow Jones foundered under Carter and set records under Obama, who has been a much better steward of the economy. (In truth, presidents have little influence over the economy, but each takes the blame or the credit.) It's too soon to tell whether T.A.R.P.  or the bank bailouts were a good idea.

Obama is more comfortable in public than Carter ever was and wins on all those intangible style points. Lest we dismiss those as trivial, remember that we have no ceremonial leader such as a queen; the POTUS is a symbol of the nation as well as its chief executive.

Carter wore his evangelical Christianity on his sleeve; Obama practices church/state separation. Obama is also a strong advocate of science.

Carter began the military buildup for which Reagan took credit; Obama has been less wiling to approve big-ticket military items and favors spending money on troops rather than hardware.

Scholars' rankings (of 44):

Carter is currently ranked 27th and Obama 17th. When he left office, Carter's was seen as a "failed" presidency, but he has risen steadily. Obama, on the other hand, has slipped from 12th to 17th. I suspect he will slip further when passions cool over the enormous symbolism of having been the first African American POTUS.  I would rank both in the 20s—at the bottom of the upper tier. There are few great domestic achievements associated with either and (alas!) foreign policy dexterity seldom attracts great acclaim.

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