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...

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About the Author

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