Obama in 2012 is often compared to Jimmy Carter in 1980. Yet we might forget that the crisis with Iran for much of 1980, even despite the failed April rescue effort, helped Carter, who chose to play statesman secluded in the Rose Garden to deflect the bad news from the awful “misery index” economy. The focus on the Iranian mess seemed to take voters’ minds off the economy all the way into autumn as the polls showed back-and-forth leads — at least until the debate helped Reagan, and then finally the weakness over Iran emphasized, rather than deflected from, the weak economy.
For the last week, no one is talking about $4-a-gallon gas, 43 months of 8-plus percent unemployment, and $5 trillion in new debt, as the Middle East dominates the headlines — and in a way, despite the implosion of Obama’s reset Middle East policy, that leaves voters confused and still sorting out whether they should rally around their commander-in-chief or be worried that his “lead from behind” and Muslim-outreach policies have empowered radical Islam’s latest round of adventurism.
If Obama can get a hold on the crisis and walk back the administration’s unhinged insistence that the violence was sporadic and entirely predicated on a months-old obscure video that just happened to emerge in the news on the anniversary of 9/11, then for a critical period (some extended swing-state voting will begin in a few weeks), the bad economic news remains muted.
But if administration megaphones keep insisting on the impossible, and continue to reveal their cluelessness about premeditated Islamist violence, the incompetence will begin to seem thematic — and it will emphasize, not deflect, the economic mess. So they are in a paradox: The more a Jay Carney or Susan Rice tries to defend a lead-from-behind reset policy, the more they project weakness that may encourage more violence that in turn will Carterize Obama as voters see commonalities between a badly led economy and a badly conducted foreign policy.