Jimmy’s Diary

Did Obama Learn the Wrong Lessons from Carter?

Democrats on the national stage are routinely compared to Jimmy Carter, a juxtaposition that’s long been shorthand for “Here comes another sweater-wearing weakling doomed to fail, ha!” Unlike a lot of Americans, however, I’m satisfied with the job Barack Obama has done so far, particularly under such difficult circumstances. So I didn’t really want to hear the inevitable Obama-Carter comparisons—until, that is, I picked up Carter’s most recent book, White House Diary.

Although—or perhaps because—I was in college during the Carter administration, much of his presidency was lost on me the first time around. But when his petty, perversely fascinating journal returned me to 1978 (without the disco or Dan Devine), the parallels were undeniable. Cerebral, virtuous, not quite as likable as we’d hoped, both men quickly alienated the left wing of their party with moderate ways that won them curiously few fans among moderates. The downside of bursting onto the scene from out of nowhere is inexperience, and both took office amid impossibly high hopes at a time of great hunger for change. There was about them a rectitude that resonated initially, yet their appeal waned almost from the moment they were inaugurated, in circumstances beyond their control that conspired to make them look overmatched.

Just as Obama often appears unaware that his message isn’t penetrating, so, too, did Carter write in his diary after his infamous “malaise” speech (though he never used that word) that “the response was very good…and I think the people were getting the message.”

Of course, there are also some major differences between our thirty-ninth and forty-fourth presidents. Though I don’t doubt Obama’s sincerity as a Christian, God is on every third page of Carter’s diary. “I...intend to pursue as much as possible a normal religious schedule,” he wrote early in his term. “The last thing Rosalynn and I do every day is read a chapter in the Bible in Spanish, and we’ll have prayer at all our meals and attend regular church services wherever we are.”

Both have been seen as no friend of Israel, but on that front Obama is no Carter, who wrote, “It’s becoming more and more obvious that the Arab leaders want a settlement, want peace—and that the Israelis don’t want a settlement. They’re going to be adamant against any sort of progress and probably will stir up trouble in Lebanon, with the Palestinians, Syrians, with Arabs in general.”

Nor is there any evidence that Obama is a complainer in a class with Carter, who’s even churlish about having accepted an honorary degree from Notre Dame: “Had I known ahead of time that they planned to do this, I would have not let them. My own intentions were to receive an honorary degree only from Georgia Tech.” And I can’t imagine Obama noting in clueless self-congratulation:

So far I don’t feel isolated from the rest of the country since I’ve been in the White House. Reverend James Baker from South Carolina, immediately after he talked to me, called his sister-in-law and was so excited that he died, unfortunately. I called his wife to express my regrets.

Likewise, though both are considered thin-skinned, Carter seems downright swamped by his grievances and grudges. He manages to work the word “Chappaquiddick” into the very first page of the intro to his book. He says New York is “a unique state, with a habit of sucking at the federal-budget tit more than anyone else in the country.’’ He even indulges pangs of jealousy over the attention paid to Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet at a party: “When he appeared at the reception this evening, according to Rosalynn and the news media, he was the center of attention and the women particularly seemed to be his admirers, although it’s hard to look at him and tell why.”

There may be one thing Obama could learn from Carter, who made a habit of vacationing simply, on his farm in Plains, or on one of the islands off the Georgia coast. But mostly, Carter’s example seems to have taught Obama what not to do—to the point that I’m wondering if he over-learned the lesson. No president wants to be seen as the sourpuss that Carter was—but is that why our leaders have such a hard time treating the American public like grownups? Though Carter was right to tell us to cut back on energy consumption, we howled like spoiled brats. And when his vice president, Walter Mondale, admitted as a 1984 presidential candidate that a tax hike was likely, well, we know how well that went.

Politicians in both parties have been running from the Carter model ever since, and trying to channel the optimism of his successor, Ronald Reagan. Maybe that’s why, even after 9/11, George W. Bush asked nothing more of Americans who did not have loved ones in the military than to hit the malls. Obama, too, missed his chance to ask more of us when he should have, and as a result has seemed out of touch with a moment that is not by any stretch “Morning in America.”


Related: A Different Kind of Malaise, by E. J. Dionne Jr.

Published in the 2010-12-03 issue: 

Melinda Henneberger, a Commonweal columnist, is the former editor-in-chief of PoliticsDaily.com.

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