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.
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.
Why is this? Carter became president at a time when the Democratic party was breaking down. The historic New Deal coalition of white Southerners, urban ethnics, and industrial union workers had begun to give way in the 1960s to the party coalition as we know it today – one dominated by African Americans and Hispanics, socially conscious liberals and their lobbyists, and public sector unions. This was a process that was occurring while Carter was president – and Carter, as a member of the “old” party, not to mention the more conservative wing of that old faction, left many Democrats feeling cold. Carter, for his part, did himself no favors by regularly refusing to placate many of these Northern, liberal factions. His attitude, as well as that of his advisors, was that he had won the White House with indifference bordering on open hostility from these leftist factions, so why cater to them?
This is a big reason why Ted Kennedy challenged Carter for the party nomination in 1980. It wasn’t just the widespread perception that Carter would have a tough time winning reelection, it was also the fact that there was substantial dissension within the party ranks. While Carter defeated Kennedy that year, he still managed just 51 percent of the primary vote, losing big states like California, Michigan, and New York.
Obama has no such political problem. In the years since Carter’s calamitous tenure, the Democratic party has rebuilt itself into the Northern, liberal coalition that we know it now. Today, not nearly as many people call themselves Democrats as once did, but those who do are much more homogenous ideologically, and they tend to be on the left hand side.
This gives Obama a substantially stronger base of support than Carter had. I have a lot of conservative friends who have puzzled over why Obama’s numbers remain as strong as they are, considering the state of the economy, the size of the deficit, and the unpopularity of the health care bill. I think the homogeneity of the modern Democratic party is a big reason why he is still in the mid-40s in terms of his job approval. Obama has governed like a true blue Democrat, and his party continues to reward him with great support.
Barring some kind of precipitous decline in the condition of the economy – like the kind of runaway inflation suffered in 1979-80 – I have a hard time seeing Obama’s numbers falling much farther than the mid- to low-40s. That’s the level where the core of the Democratic coalition remains united behind him. It’s not enough to win, of course, but it is enough to make it interesting. Given the demagoguery the Obama team has engaged in against the GOP budget plan, it seems unlikely that he will broker some grand compromise that might risk alienating his party base. Thus, I see relatively little change in his numbers moving forward.
Accordingly, I think that at this point the Democrat that Obama most closely resembles is Michael Dukakis. To appreciate what I mean, let’s compare Obama’s current standing among different political groups with the 1988 exit poll results.
These are some very eerie similarities – Dukakis, unlike Carter, was able to hold together his party coalition. He lost the 1988 election because Republicans were firmly united behind George Bush, and independents broke decisively toward the GOP.
This is roughly how the current political landscape appears, which leads me to conclude if the election were held today, and the GOP nominated a reasonably attractive candidate, Obama would do about as well in the popular vote as Dukakis did. Given the geographical polarization of the electorate (i.e. the red state-blue state divide), Obama would surely capture more than the 111 electoral votes Dukakis carried. Even so, it would be a sizeable Republican victory. Not quite as smashing as Reagan’s victory in 1980, but still substantial.
Moving forward, I think that is the best way to compare Obama. Not so much to Carter, who was hampered by internal divisions that did not plague Obama, but more to Dukakis, whose final vote share is roughly consistent with Obama’s job approval rating over the last 18 months.