Obama Is and Is Not Carter

by Victor Davis Hanson

There is a lot of anguish on the left that Barack Obama is starting to resemble Jimmy Carter, as if his whining, ineffective style and lack of intestinal fortitude will doom the liberal agenda in the way that Carter once did as well. That analysis is upside down. Obama remains a formidable, albeit teleprompted, speaker, about the best emissary of the leftist worldview imaginable. He is young and vigorous in a way Bill Clinton was and Jimmy Carter was not. The problem is not Barack Obama the person, but Barack Obama’s hard-core leftist agenda. Bill Clinton evolved into a centrist who eventually reflected usually what 51 percent of the electorate wanted. In contrast, Jimmy Carter was, like Obama, an ideologue, but with an ideology that few Americans embrace. 

Obama’s lackluster polls do not necessarily reflect any sudden lack of charisma or a distracted president chumming it up on the golf links, but the growing awareness of the American people that they, for a variety of reasons in 2008, elected another Carter-like liberal whose economic policies of higher taxes, bigger government, and larger deficits don’t work, and whose ill effects are enhanced, rather than mitigated, by presidential jawboning aimed at the very productive classes who do most of the hiring. He is proving a sort of national catharsis, presenting statist, centrally planned ideas in their most attractive passage, and in the process, as the economy stalls, souring Americans on the substance rather than the style.

So there is one difference, and a very important one at that, between Carter and Obama. The so-called progressive community for over 30 years could blame the Carter implosion on his own inept delivery, wooden personality, and grating preachy style. But in Obama they had a figure right out of central casting — young, charismatic, non-traditional, ‘post-racial,’ glib, and at times eloquent. So the present mess, unlike that of 1977–80, cannot so easily be attributed to packaging rather than content, a fact which has far more profound consequences to the leftist cause.

As I understand most liberal critiques, it goes something like this: “Carter’s ineptness doomed an otherwise noble cause; Clinton’s political mastery proved a success, but at the expense of compromising the cause; Obama at last has Clinton’s flair but is a committed liberal, and therefore will succeed where the two others failed.”  I think we are seeing that such analyses are flawed, and a far better one will prove to be: “Even a Barack Obama cannot advance a fundamentally unsound agenda.”