The Magazine

...But It Won’t Be Easy

Feb 6, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 20 • By WILLIAM KRISTOL
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On January 23, 1980, Jimmy Carter gave what turned out to be his final State of the Union address. Ronald Reagan’s victory over Carter that November spared us any more of them. Will Barack Obama’s appearance before Congress on January 24, 2012, be his swan song? 

Photos of Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama

Jimmy Carter, 1980 State of the Union; Barack Obama, 2012 State of the Union

’Tis a consummation devoutly to be wished. 

But there are differences between 2012 and 1980. One is that the Republicans have no Reagan. Another is that it may not be as clear that Obama has failed as was the case with Carter. That’s not to say Obama is a superior president to Carter. In fact, Obama may end up having done more damage to the country, even if he only gets one term. But how evident will Obama’s failure be when voters go to the polls on November 6?

Thirty-two years ago, Carter had no choice but to acknowledge the perilous state of the union: “At this time in Iran, 50 Americans are still held captive, innocent victims of terrorism and anarchy. Also at this moment, massive Soviet troops are attempting to subjugate the fiercely independent and deeply religious people of Afghanistan.”

The events of 1979 had proven, as much as any set of events can, the failure of Carter’s foreign policy. There aren’t yet such obvious markers of failure in the case of Obama. Indeed, in his State of the Union, Obama could cite as achievements the departure from Iraq and the beginning of a drawdown in Afghanistan—knowing that the dangerous consequences of these policies, and for that matter of his defense cuts, aren’t yet glaringly clear, and trusting they won’t be too obvious by Election Day. And of course Obama could celebrate the killing of Osama bin Laden. The next day we learned of the successful rescue by Navy SEALs of two hostages in Somalia. Three months after Carter spoke, the attempt to rescue the hostages in Iran ended in failure.

The case against Obama’s foreign policy is a strong one, as Thomas Joscelyn, Bill Roggio, and Reuel Marc Gerecht suggest elsewhere in this issue. But it will have to be prosecuted; it won’t speak for itself. Carter’s foreign policy was a self-evident fiasco. Obama’s is a slower-motion disaster, its consequences mostly beneath the waterline for now. In his speech, Carter announced the boycott of the 1980 Olympics in Moscow. All will presumably go swimmingly at the 2012 Olympics in London. In his speech, Carter praised the men and women of America’s military, and then announced that though he believed our volunteer forces were adequate to our needs, he was asking Congress to resume draft registration just in case. Obama praised our military too, but was—however foolishly—able to announce a shrinking of our force because the tide of war seems to be receding.

So the world may well seem safer on Election Day 2012 than it did on Election Day 1980. 

And on the economic front, things may at least seem to be gradually getting better. We’ve had growth in every quarter since the summer of 2009. Unemployment is creeping down. Obama did not have to mention, as Carter did, the prospect of gasoline rationing, or have to explain an increase in the inflation rate. Our massive debt, the entitlement crisis, Obamacare—these are all looming disasters. But unlike in 1980, the disasters haven’t yet fully arrived. 

And the disasters of 1980 were clearly the result of big government liberalism. Democrats had controlled Congress for a quarter century. Even Nixon had governed as a Keynesian. Today, by contrast, Republicans have controlled the presidency or Congress for much of the last 30 years. Responsibility for our problems can be given—to some degree legitimately—more of a bipartisan cast. Deregulation has had its problems along with over-regulation. Our current tax rates are Bush’s, not LBJ’s. And it was John Boehner, a Republican speaker, who sat behind President Obama as he delivered his address. In 1980, it was Tip O’Neill. In 2012, the GOP challenger will not be able to run as unambiguously against years of Democratic misrule in the service of an exhausted liberalism as could Reagan in 1980.

Finally, as he spoke, Carter was facing a serious primary challenge from within his own party. Obama has none. And as Carter spoke, the GOP was in the midst of developing fresh ideas (supply-side economics, most obviously), adding fresh recruits (the Reagan Democrats), and nominating an attractive leader who could advance the conservative case clearly and powerfully. As Obama spoke, it wasn’t evident his opposition was evidencing comparable intellectual or political vigor.

We had better.

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