A newcomer to national politics, he claimed to transcend partisan labels. He moved to the center during the campaign, at a time when the Democrats held large congressional majorities. In a troubled economy, he told voters he would keep taxes down for most Americans, limit spending, and balance the budget, all while implementing ambitious social programs. He planned to cut military spending to free money for other purposes, but assured moderates and conservatives that when it came to America’s enemies, he would be tougher than the Republicans. The media, droves of moderates, and some conservatives believed him, having pegged him as a man of character.
His name was Jimmy Carter, the year was 1976, and he won. His presidency helps us predict the likely results of an Obama victory in 2008.
What did the majority of 1976 get in return for its votes? Carter’s campaign vow to avoid increasing payroll taxes went out the window: He and Congress raised Social Security taxes through the roof. They also slapped large new taxes on oil and gas. Meanwhile, Carter canceled his plan for a tax refund to Americans earning under $30,000. Casting aside more campaign pledges, Carter and Congress increased annual federal spending from $403 billion to $579 billion and grew the national debt from $709 billion to $914 billion. Tens of billions of dollars went to new jobs programs, urban aid, and mushrooming entitlements, and Carter’s promise to stop Democratic pork-barrel spending was abandoned.
Carter and the Democratic Congress generated 18 percent inflation and economic stagnation at the same time. Unemployment rose. Americans came to regret the votes they had cast — Carter’s approval rating sank to 21 percent in 1980, the lowest in the history of polling.
Carter also threw out his professed hawkishness on foreign policy. Declaring America liberated from its “inordinate fear of Communism,” he sought better relations with the Communists in the Soviet Union, China, Cuba, and Vietnam. He was much less nice to America’s allies, withdrawing support from those who did not accept his self-righteous demands for human-rights reforms. Friendly regimes in Nicaragua and Iran fell to hostile tyrants.
If Obama abandons his promises the way Carter did, his presidency will be even more dangerous. Carter at least had longstanding tendencies toward fiscal restraint, and he, together with a large block of conservative Democrats in Congress, prevented the most left-wing elements of Congress from taxing and spending even more. Obama, on the other hand, has himself been part of the most left-wing element in the U.S. Senate, and conservatives do not have a significant presence on the Democratic side of the Reid-Pelosi Congress. Also, Obama has no history of breaking with his party before this year.
There are reasons to believe Obama will indeed break his promises. In March, he told the American public he would force Canada and Mexico to make concessions on NAFTA. Obama’s senior economic adviser privately assured Canadian officials that Obama’s public promises were “more reflective of political maneuvering than policy.” In the ensuing months, Obama likewise sent contradictory messages to different audiences on such issues as taxes, Iraq, and crime.
In the second presidential debate, Obama made the most flagrant of his bogus promises yet, when he announced a “net spending cut.” The National Taxpayers Union has estimated that Obama will actually produce a net spending increase of at least $292 billion per year. Although the press would have pilloried McCain for such a brazen falsehood, Obama took so little heat that he repeated it again at the third debate.
Also during the third debate, Obama distanced himself from ACORN, denying any involvement with this organization since 1995. But as Sen. McCain pointed out, the Obama campaign paid $832,000 to an ACORN subsidiary earlier this year. Most ominous for the future is Obama’s statement to the Heartland Presidential Forum — which consists of ACORN and other leftist “community organizations” — that as soon as he wins the election, “we’ll be calling all of you in to help us shape the agenda.”
Perhaps most incriminating of all is Joe Biden’s Seattle speech. In words that received less media attention than the “international testing” remarks, Biden asserted that an Obama administration would make unpopular decisions, because “if they’re popular, they’re probably not sound.” As a consequence, “You all are going to be sitting here a year from now going, ‘Oh my God, why are they there in the polls, why is the polling so down?’” In other words, Obama’s poll numbers will fall once Americans learn that his popular promises of 2008 have been supplanted in 2009 by actions that most Americans oppose.
Before casting a vote for Obama, Americans must consider the likelihood that he will follow the path of Jimmy Carter — that he will wreck the fragile economy by reneging on promises to cut taxes and spending, that he will be tough on America’s allies and soft on its enemies. The odds of Obama staying true to his current rhetoric are so poor that not even the boldest gambler should bet on it.
— Mark Moyar is the author of Triumph Forsaken: The Vietnam War, 1954-1965.