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Morning Jay: What Would Jimmy Do?

6:00 AM, Jun 22, 2011 • By JAY COST
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Last week, in a piece entitled “The right really, really wants Obama to be Jimmy Carter,” Salon’s Steve Kornacki cited my item on Carter as the prime example of a systematic effort on the right to invoke Carter as a bogeyman to “fill the GOP base with resentment and hostility, which translates into increased activism and turnout at the polls.” Kornacki should have read more carefully. I was not so much comparing Obama to Carter as I was using an example from the Carter era to explain the limits of Obama's political theater.

Jimmy Carter April 1980

Yet Kornacki has accidentally stumbled upon my true opinion. I would like Barack Obama to be more like Jimmy Carter.  It would make him a better president.

Don’t get me wrong. There is a lot not to like about Carter. If you are interested in a exhaustive critique of the 39th president’s executive style, check out this old essay from James Fallows, who argues that Carter was insular, ignorant of history, too focused on the details and not enough on the big picture, arrogant, and moralistic. Further, his post-presidency has been terrible.

Let's narrow the scope to focus just on domestic politics and policy. On this front, Carter and Gerald Ford, unlike their postwar predecessors, had to deal with an economic pie that was no longer expanding. The great engine of American prosperity had begun to slow in the late 1960s, and by the time Carter took office, it was coming to a stop. The problem had little to do with Carter: It was a decade-long decline in the growth rate of worker productivity.

Productivity is so important to the creation of private wealth. If we can produce more in the same number of hours, it means that there is a larger slice of the economic pie to go around. That is what fueled the great economic boom of the 1960s, but this productivity growth began to sputter with the bad recession of 1974 and 1975, and it never picked back up during the Carter administration. 

Slowing productivity growth meant that the average worker’s paycheck wasn't getting larger, and this manifested itself in stagnant real incomes:

What had made LBJ a relative success was his ability to embark on great projects that were bankrolled by strong economic growth. He had access to increasing revenue streams, which he could redistribute to the lower classes, thus earning him a place of honor in the liberal pantheon. Carter simply did not have that luxury.

Of course, the Democratic party’s left wing paid no mind to these limits. They demanded the passage of the Humphrey-Hawkins full employment bill, a massive hike in the minimum wage, a comprehensive national health care policy, and more. They also dragged their heels on Carter’s effort to make the government work better at what it was doing – giving him grief over welfare and job training reform. And the labor unions frequently balked at Carter’s efforts to keep the country from being pulled further into the wage-price spiral.

Yet, on most of these items, Carter stood up to his own party, and he paid the political price for it. Ted Kennedy became the avatar of the left’s pent-up frustration, challenging Carter in the 1980 Democratic primaries and winning big states like California and New York. Kennedy’s challenge culminated with the oft-celebrated “dream will never die” speech at the 1980 Democratic national convention.

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