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Now and Again

6:00 AM, Nov 5, 2012 • By NOEMIE EMERY
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With the issues, the rule was "the same, only different," with the differences being matters of nuance and time. Carter’s economy broke down on his watch—in the final two years of his term—and he was duly blamed for it, while the Obama economy crashed before he took office, and he was blamed largely because it failed to recover and thrive. Carter had gas lines, soaring interest rates, unemployment, and inflation, which gave rise to the terms "stagflation" and "misery index"; Obama had four straight failed "recovery summers," record unemployment, under-investment, and flat GDP. In foreign affairs, each favored "soft" over "hard" power, wished to cut back defense spending, thought threats from abroad had been much overrated, thought America exceptional mainly in self-admiration, and seemed to defer to despots and enemies, while dismissing free countries and friends. "The embrace of human rights and the rejection of cold war containment turned into a rolling confessional about America’s role in the world," writes Steven F. Hayward in The Age of Reagan. "Carter quickly eased up on his complaints about human rights in the Soviet bloc . . . and began using human rights as a cudgel against traditional United States allies." He also thought "the U.S. itself had been the root cause of many [world] problems," and should do a "penance" of sorts for its sins. This was exactly what critics thought Obama had done when he made an "apology tour" in his first months in office, accusing his country of "arrogance." He also took care to diss Israel, Poland, and Britain, returning a bust of Winston S. Churchill, and put together an audio compliation of his own speeches as a generous gift to the queen.

Each came a cropper in Middle East countries, Carter’s ordeal beginning in February, 1979, when Iranian mobs briefly seized the American Embassy on the same day the ambassador to Afghanistan was killed in Kabul. It grew worse on November 4, when mobs again seized the embassy in Tehran, this time for good, or at least until Reagan’s inauguration almost 15 months later, when the 52 remaining American hostages at last were released. Mindful of Carter’s example, and Carter’s defeat, Obama took care to create an impression of toughness, largely through drone strikes and the dispatch of Osama bin Laden, which enabled him through his convention in Charlotte to present himself as an effective world leader, who had won hearts and minds in the Middle East region, while beheading the terrorist snake. This lasted through midday on September 11, 2012, when jihadists celebrated the anniversary of their attacks in New York and Virginia by attacking embassies in Egypt and Libya, killing an ambassador and three other Americans, and kicking off riots all over the region in which celebrants shouted "Obama, we are all Osama!" and burned effigies of Obama. At once, it became clear he had not been successful; he had not made the Middle East and/or Muslims love him; "leading from behind" was not more successful than "leading from the front"; al Qaeda was still potent after bin Laden’s death and that death was not a sign that Obama had triumphed in war. 

The attacks of 9/11/12 revealed security lapses, confusion, and failures of judgment, made even worse when the administration tried to link them to rage over a 12-minute video, played mainly on YouTube, that very few people had seen. It took time, (more than three and a half years in the case of Obama), but each ended up with breached embassies, a dead ambassador, and records of failure that could not be defended, and needed campaigns of distraction to hide.

In the event, the campaigns the Democrats ran were all but identical. As Jack Germond and Jules Witcover write in Blue Smoke and Mirrors, their account of the 1980 election, Carter’s opponents seized on his record, while he "sought to escape from it, to distort and tinker with the reality, and to paint his opponents . . . as dangerous figures . . . to persuade the voters that the record wasn’t all that bad, that the bad news wasn’t Carter’s fault, and that the opposition would be much worse." "We had to make Reagan the issue," Pat Caddell told the authors. The authors said Carter had to change the election from a verdict on himself to a choice of "two futures," one of which—Reagan’s—would be bound to be nothing but grim. 

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