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Morning Jay: Is Obama Another Jimmy Carter?

6:00 AM, Jun 17, 2011 • By JAY COST
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In my column on Wednesday, I drew a comparison between the Obama administration and the Jimmy Carter administration of 1977-1981, arguing that both were engaging in political theater in lieu of real power to affect the fundamentals of the American economy. Other analysts have also drawn the Obama-Carter analogy. But today I’d like to delineate the limits to the comparison, as I think it will help conservatives better understand the challenge they face in the upcoming election.

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To start, there is an appeal to the Obama-Carter analogy that derives from the personality of both men. Obama and Carter saw themselves as being above the political fray, yet both were as political as anybody else who has resided at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue since its first occupant. This holier than thou approach infuriated Carter’s political opponents in the late 1970s, just as Obama’s dissenters have been frustrated by his do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do attitude since he took office. The other parallel of particular merit is the one I discussed on Wednesday: both had to deal with an economy that seemed frustratingly resistant to the governmental management. Carter could not stem inflation, Obama cannot stimulate real private sector growth. 

But there are substantial differences. The most obvious is that the two come from opposite sides of the Democratic party. Carter hails originally from Sumter County, Georgia in the heart of the Southern “Black Belt.” The Southern Democratic party when he was growing up was overwhelmingly white and rural, and now these kinds of voters usually support Republicans (indeed, Sumter County today splits its vote for president, just as the county as a whole is split almost evenly between whites and blacks). Obama, on the other hand, would surely not have supported Carter had he been of age in 1976. As an intellectual from Hyde Park, he would more likely have backed Mo Udall or Sargent Shriver in the Democratic primary. Carter – a moderate Democrat from the South – would have had little or no appeal to somebody with such close ties to the New Left as Obama.

The most important difference for conservatives and Republicans, however, is the position of each within his own party. Put simply, Obama is in much better shape with his own coalition than Carter ever was. To appreciate that, consider the following chart, which tracks the approval of Obama and Carter among all adults, Democrats, independents, and Republicans at key points in each administration. All numbers come from the Gallup poll.

You’ll notice that by June of his third year in office, the bottom had basically fallen out from under Carter, due largely to runaway inflation. The economy remains fragile today in 2011, but there is not a sense that things are spiraling out of control. When the Consumer Price Index starts increasing by 1 percent per month, as it did in 1979, the average consumer will feel genuinely threatened, as opposed to right now when most of them feel as though they are merely treading water.

But the lines I want to focus in on are approval among Democrats. Notice that Obama’s are consistently stronger than Carter’s. Carter also correspondingly did better among Republicans than Obama did.

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