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.
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.
In Kornacki’s book, all this makes Carter “a very conservative” Democrat. Yet this is an inaccurate label when judged by the standards of Carter’s day, for he was obviously to the left of Democrats like Harry Byrd, James Eastland, and John Stennis. Judged from a broader historical perspective, Arthur Schlesinger once said that Carter "is not a Democrat -- at least in anything more recent than the Grover Cleveland sense of the word." But I disagree. I think the best way to view Carter is to see him as a moderate Democrat trying to update the New Deal ideology for a changing world. As he said at the 1979 dedication of the JFK Presidential Library:
President Kennedy was right: Change is the law of life. The world of 1980 is as different from what it was in 1960 as the world of 1960 was from that of 1940. Our means of improving the world must also be different.
After a decade of high inflation and growing oil imports, our economic cup no longer overflows. Because of inflation, fiscal restraint has become a matter of simple public duty. We can no longer rely on a rising economic tide to lift the boats of the poorest in our society. We must focus our attention and our care and our love and concern directly on them.
We have a keener appreciation of limits now--the limits of government, limits on the use of military power abroad, the limits of manipulating, without harm to ourselves, a delicate and a balanced natural environment.
We are struggling with a profound transition from a time of abundance to a time of growing scarcity in energy. We're only beginning to learn the new habits and to utilize the new technologies that will carry us to a future age of clean and renewable energy.
And we face these times when centrifugal forces in our society and in our political system as well--forces of regionalism, forces of ethnicity, of narrow economic interests, of single-issue politics--are testing the resiliency of American pluralism and of our ability to govern. But we can and we will prevail.
The problems are different; the solutions, none of them easy, are also different. But in this age of hard choices and scarce resources, the essence of President Kennedy's message – the appeal for unselfish dedication to the common good – is more urgent than it ever was. The spirit that he evoked – the spirit of sacrifice, of patriotism, of unstinting dedication – is the same spirit that will bring us safely through the adversities that we face today. The overarching purpose of this Nation remains the same to build a just society in a secure America living at peace with the other nations of the world.
This is not the position of a "very conservative" Democrat so much as it is that of a New Dealer who has realized that the rules of the game had changed. That makes Carter’s position much more realistic than Ted Kennedy’s, which was stuck in the 1960s.
Barack Obama entered office facing a situation that was similar to the one Carter dealt with: an age of limits. Economic growth over 2001-2010 was far weaker than any in the postwar era, and realistic estimates for 2011-2020 do not offer the hope of a return to past glories. Like Carter, Obama as a candidate promised something fresh and bold – pledging a different approach that would make government work better and move us past the old left-right divide. Yet rather than trying to redesign the outmoded liberal ideology for this new age, Obama acted as though it were the 1960s. He quickly passed a poorly conceived and inefficient stimulus package, as if the only problem with this sickly economy was too much Keynesian "slack," then proceeded to move on to Great Society II. In particular, he let the various factions in his own party craft the poorly designed Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (Obamacare).
This was a terrible piece of legislation in so many ways, but three major problems are relevant to this discussion here. First, it adds a new federal entitlement, precisely at the point when the current entitlement state is about to collapse under its own weight. Second, it plays favorites, catering to what Carter called the “centrifugal forces in our society” that happen to be on the Democratic side of the ledger, precisely at the point when Americans are sick and tired of exactly this kind of politics. Third, it kept policy makers from focusing on the economy, precisely at the point when the great American growth machine has again come to a stop.
The contrast between Carter and Obama on domestic policies does not reflect well on the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. When the country was looking for a new approach, Carter could not follow through on his promises, but at least he tried, and at least he had the guts to stand up to the factions in his own party. Obama didn't even try. Instead, he caved to those very same interests, and signed into law their tired ideas, as if the world in 2010 was the same as it was in 1965. In so doing, he has not only left our major domestic problems unsolved, he has made them worse.
For his four years in office, Carter has rightly earned a reputation as one of our country's below average presidents. Even so, when it comes to domestic policy, at least Carter wasn’t living in the past like Obama is.