How Obama Can Avoid the Mistakes of Carter

You get graded on a steep curve as president. Getting elected should be accomplishment enough to last a lifetime, but once you enter the Oval Office the goalposts get moved and you’re competing against the ghosts of presidents past.

On Wednesday, President-elect Obama will sit down for lunch at the White House with the four other living members of the club that only 44 men in the history of our republic have joined. It’s an unprecedented meeting, part of an unusually thorough and thoughtful transition orchestrated by the outgoing administration. But as the son of the first President Bush can tell you, even personal experience learning from a previous president does not guarantee future success.

President-elect Obama begins with an historic advantage that lunch companions Carter, Bush, Clinton, and Bush did not have—he enters office as an immediately consequential president, the embodiment of America’s struggle to form a more perfect union, an step toward absolving our original sin of slavery. On that thematic level alone, his place in history is assured even before inauguration.

Obama has another advantage in the presidential sweepstakes—the times are piled high with difficulty. Great presidents require great drama. That’s why Theodore Roosevelt was always cursing the fact that he was not a wartime president, and that’s why Bill Clinton’s self-inflicted scandals will compete with his political and policy accomplishments for history’s headlines. With America embroiled in two wars, and suffering the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, “No-Drama” Obama has plenty on his plate, providing the opportunity for presidential greatness as well as the possibility of a presidential quagmire.

But Obama has another natural advantage–he is entering office with not just the admiration but the affection of the American people. We haven’t seen a truly pop-culture president since the Kennedy Camelot years, and after the historic unpopularity of President Bush in his second term, the shift to the Obama phenomenon in the White House will be stark. Obama’s actions won’t just be covered in Time or Newsweek, they’ll be covered in People and Rolling Stone as well. And it will be a key reason that any Republican attempts to pursue a simply obstructionist “No-Bama” strategy will fail.

Obama’s approval ratings won’t remain sky-high over the course of his presidency, but he will connect personally with the American people in a way that George W. Bush never did and in so doing redefine Teflon for a new generation.

But importance is not the same thing as success, just as popularity does not necessarily translate to effectiveness. As Obama is having lunch today, he might look across the table and ponder this presidential cautionary tale:

Once there was a president who campaigned on hope and change after a period of disillusionment, division, and economic downturn. He was a virtual unknown when the campaign began, a long-shot dark-horse with a brief record in public office, criticized by party-elders for having the self-assurance to believe that he should be president instead of waiting his turn. But people across the political spectrum responded to the candidate’s calm candor and thoughtful intelligence—they saw in him a different kind of politician who could heal old divides and make them believe in our democracy again. Armed with a disciplined campaign, he pulled off what Time called “something of a political miracle.” Before inauguration day, over 60 percent of Americans believed he would make a good or great president. By March, proposing a far-sighted energy bill and an economic stimulus plan that balanced job-creation with targeted tax-cuts, his approval ratings reached 72 percent. Things fell apart from there.

Conservatives like to tar every Democrat as the second coming of Jimmy Carter. Already, snarky t-shirts are being advertised on the Drudge Report showing Obama’s face with the slogan “Welcome Back, Carter.” These are likely to wear as badly as the campaign attacks on Obama that suggested he was a socialist.

Obama has already avoided two traps that ultimately fell Jimmy Carter. First, his transition has been disciplined and inclusive, despite the circus sideshow of the Blagojevich scandal. Obama took a page from JFK, who appointed three Republicans to his cabinet (at Defense, Treasury, and the CIA) as a way of building on his narrow Election Day margin of victory. Carter offered a straight Democrat cabinet, with White House positions staffed mainly with loyalists dubbed “the Georgia Mafia” (a mistake which Clinton replicated by appointing his childhood friend Mack McLarty as Chief of Staff). Second, while Carter wasted much goodwill and political capital warring with Tip O’Neill’s Democratic Congress, Obama understands that his success will be tied to the cooperation of Congress – that’s why his first two appointments were Joe Biden and Rahm Emanuel, people known for their their experience and respect in both houses of Congress.

But there is one area where the Carter cautionary-tale could still prove troublesome to President Obama. As former Carter speechwriter James Fallows wrote in 1979, “The central idea of the Carter Administration is Jimmy Carter himself… Hubert Humphrey might have carried out Lyndon Johnson’s domestic policies. Gerald Ford, the foreign policies of Richard Nixon. But no one could carry out the Carter Program because Carter has resisted providing the overall guidelines that might explain what his program is.”

Obama has spoken frankly of his Rorschach-like political appeal, where people across the political spectrum project on him what they wish to see. It is a quality he shares with the early Jimmy Carter. To meet a different fate, he will need to lay out the consistent philosophical vision of his administration, the overall policy guidelines his supporters can carry on in his name. This is a challenge to be taken seriously by President Obama in the opening months of his presidency, because it is underscored by the warning of history.

Politics is history in the present tense. It fascinates us because it is a participatory sport, we all contribute to making it in some small way, and the gains that are made are not reflected in points on a scoreboard but in the progress of society.

Presidents are playing simultaneously on a larger field, competing against the giants of the past and judged in comparison to their predecessors, both living and dead. And while recent occupants of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue have been content to compare themselves with Truman, Kennedy, or Reagan, Obama is aiming far higher, inviting comparisons to Lincoln and FDR. He does not seem awed by the responsibility, but honored by the opportunity, to compete with the ghosts of presidents past.

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