“Sen. Obama says that I’m running for Bush’s third term,” John McCain quipped in June 2008. “It seems to me he’s running for Jimmy Carter’s second.” Less than three years later, Sen. McCain’s bleak forecast is coming true.
Let’s start with how Americans felt about America under President Carter and how they feel about America under President Obama.
Today, as in the late 1970s, there is a pervasive sense of decline. Obama has even mentioned it in a State of the Union and in his inaugural address.
This sense of decline is a function of many factors: China’s rapid rise, Washington’s self-imposed constraint overseas but especially America’s faltering economy.
Unemployment has remained stubbornly above 9 percent throughout the Obama presidency. Some 15 percent of homeowners are either facing foreclosure or at least a month behind on their mortgage. Inflation is creeping up. And the Misery Index is back.
It was invented during the Carter administration as a way to gauge how bad things are for the American people. In simplest terms, it’s the unemployment rate plus the inflation rate. The Misery Index was 19.72 at the end of Carter’s term, up seven points from four years earlier. Under Obama, it’s 10.63, up three points from when he entered office. (By the way, the Misery Index went down under George W. Bush.)
The bad news for American consumers—and for Obama’s 2012 prospects—is that if energy prices continue to rise, the economy will not be able to create new jobs, which means the Misery Index will live up to its name.
Today, as in the 1970s, gas prices are exploding, spurred by rising demand in developing economies and volatile supply lines in the Middle East. Oil has rocketed past $100 per barrel, translating into $3.36-per-gallon gas, up from $2.70 per gallon this time last year (national averages). That’s a 25-percent rise.
Inflationdata.com points out that between 1976 and 1980 gas prices increased by about 65 percent. According to one energy expert, “It would not be inconceivable to see $150- or $200-barrel oil this year.” In other words, it seems gas prices are headed in the same direction as in the late 1970s.
Obama’s solution is restraint and constraint. “We can’t drive our SUVs and…keep our homes on 72 degrees at all times,” he lectured us in 2008, before pushing a cap-and-trade scheme to tax and thus ration energy.
That’s straight out of Carter’s playbook: turn down the thermostat, wear sweaters, install solar panels, etc.
Even when Obama tried to go against his own tendencies and promote a modest opening of “new offshore areas for oil and gas,” events in the Gulf of Mexico intervened to stymie him. It was almost as if the ghost of Carter was haunting him. Recall that Carter promoted nuclear energy, describing the benefits of nuclear power as “very real and practical,” until Three Mile Island intervened.
Finally, we come to foreign policy. To be sure, there are subtle differences between Carter and Obama: Carter championed human rights, while Obama, from Iran and China in 2009 to Egypt and Libya in 2011, has embraced a kind of agnosticism on human rights and democracy. But both men seem to view the world through the prism of moral relativism. For Carter, that meant explaining away the behavior of America’s enemies and condemning the behavior of America’s allies; for Obama, it means lacing his speeches with qualifiers about America’s problems and flaws, while refusing to use the bully pulpit to promote freedom.
Today, as in 1979, the Middle East is in turmoil. Carter was not to blame for the Iranian mob’s assault on the U.S. embassy, and Obama is not to blame for the cascading chaos across the northern tier of Africa. But they are to blame for how their administrations reacted to these events.
For months, Carter did nothing of substance in response to the embassy takeover, and when he tried to do something it proved worse than nothing.
Similarly, in response to Iran’s failed Twitter Revolution of 2009, Obama sat silent. No one was calling on him to send in the 82nd Airborne to support the Iranian protestors. But freedom-loving people—and their enemies—look to America for signals. And Obama’s signals were loud and clear in the summer of 2009.
His administration made the same mistake but in a different way in Egypt, as his secretary of state and vice president initially mouthed support for Egypt’s autocrat. In Libya, the administration has regressed, failing in the first two weeks of Libya’s revolution to do or say anything of substance in response to Khadafy’s brutality. As Elliot Abrams observes, “When…the Arab League is ahead of you in denouncing human rights violations, you are reacting a bit slowly.”
But the Arab League, the EU and the UN secretary general are going to be ahead of Obama because he is more interested in the international community “speaking with one voice” and “bearing witness” than in America leading. In this regard, it pays to recall what historian William Pfaff observed in The Wrath of Nations: When nations don’t want to act, let alone lead, international organizations actually become “an obstacle to action, by inhibiting individual national action and rationalizing the refusal to act nationally.”
Blessedly, there has been no Desert One debacle under Obama, though one gets the sense that something like that is looming, perhaps in Libya or Yemen, perhaps in Saudi Arabia or Oman.
What we do know is that there already have been diplomatic debacles: Obama has “reset,” apologized, and gripped and grinned to accommodate America’s foes, averting his gaze from government thuggery in Russia in order to get an arms control treaty of questionable merit, ditching the Dalai Lama in order to save a photo-op summit in Beijing, literally bowing to the emperor of Japan, monarch of Saudi Arabia and dictator of China.
Similar things happened under Carter. A 1979 Washington Post article captures the strange and sad symbolism of Washington’s interactions with Moscow in those gray days of self-doubt and malaise. “Carter,” the Post reported, “seems to have developed a protectiveness, almost a fondness, for the older man, especially after he saved Brezhnev from falling on Sunday morning…Brezhnev seemed to welcome Carter’s assistance, as though he had come to depend on it.”
That was a bruising visual metaphor for Carter, and there are traces of this in Obama’s interactions with the world. Just consider how the Russias, Chinas, Irans and Venezuelas view the United States today.
Alan Dowd (twitter.com/alanwdowd) writes on defense and security issues.