Mark Twain said that history doesn’t repeat, it rhymes. The latter half of the aughts rhymes fairly well with the mid to late seventies, at least economically: A federal reserve-induced inflation yielding illusory expansion; stagnant to declining wage rates; a severe, yet fairly brief contraction, followed by a swift, but illusory expansion; jobs disappearing never to return; domestic automobile manufacturers facing stiff competition from overseas car companies. Perhaps Mr. Obama’s political fortunes will exhibit the same trajectory as Mr. Carter’s before him. There are certainly enough folks comparing Obama to Carter, such as John Fund from the Wall Street Journal describes:
Walter Mondale, Mr. Carter’s vice president, told The New Yorker this week that anxious and angry voters in the late 1970s “just turned against us—same as with Obama.” As the polls turned against his administration, Mr. Mondale recalled that Mr. Carter “began to lose confidence in his ability to move the public.” Democrats on Capitol Hill are now saying this is happening to Mr. Obama.
So, people in his own party are distancing themselves from him. Politics is brutal.
But is Obama the reincarnation of Carter? Let’s explore some similarities and differences.
1) Both men elected President of the US during turbulent times domestically and internationally;
2) Both men Democrats;
3) Both men claim to be Christian;
4) Both men mostly wear suits to work;.
5) Both men are married with children;
6) Both men have white, very straight and gleaming teeth, making for photogenic smiles;
7) Both men are articulate;
8) Both men grew up in small towns;
9) Both men defined their presidency internationally by their relationship with Iran;
10) It appears both men will have been the best thing that could have happened to the party in opposition. Mr. Carter was directly responsible for ushering in the age of Reaganism and the decade of conservative governance that followed. Mr. Obama’s legacy is not clear, but his party will assuredly suffer huge losses because of him in this November’s election.
Now, the differences:
1) Mr. Obama presumably has a smaller percentage of white ancestry than does Mr. Carter;
2) The small town in which Mr. Obama grew up is in Indonesia. Mr. Carter grew up in Plains, in Georgia, which is one of the fifty states of the U.S.;
3) Mr. Carter occasionally and embarrassingly wore cardigan sweaters to prove his energy-conservation bona fides. Mr. Obama mostly sticks to suits or dress shirts with rolled up sleeves;
4) In the face of economic malaise, Mr. Carter decreased government involvement in the economy, deregulating trucking and airlines, et al. Mr. Obama’s strategy for containing an economic conflagration has been throwing a blanket of government regulation over it;
5) Mr. Obama offered to shake Iran’s hand if it would unclench its fist. It was the same clenched fist that had smashed into Mr. Carter’s face, a blow from which he never recovered;
7) Mr. Carter’s life before the presidency included attending the Naval Academy, serving on a nuclear-powered submarine, farming peanuts in Plains, and serving a term as Georgia’s governor. Mr. Obama was a community organizer, then a state senator, then the US Senator from Illinois;
8) The country was reeling from the defeat and shame of Vietnam during Mr. Carter’s campaign and presidency. The country is reeling from the endless Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts during Mr. Obama’s;
9) The Soviet Union presented an existential and rising threat during Mr. Carter’s presidency. The US stands alone as the preeminent superpower today;
10) Baby boomers were settling down and getting jobs during Mr. Carter’s presidency. They are retiring and dying during Mr. Obama’s.
So there are some similarities and some differences. The nature of space and time prevents history from ever identically repeating, but it cycles, and this day and age appears to be the cycle down from the macro cycle up that began at the end of the Carter era and continued mostly unabated until topping out in 2007. We are on the back side, cycling down and retracing our steps, so that’s why these days feel so much like the seventies.
If Carter and Obama seem the same, I think it has more to do with the times in which we find ourselves than it does with any similarities between the men. I mean on its surface, the idea is preposterous: A white, descendant of Southern gentility (i.e., English nobility) having much in common with a half-white Kansan, half-black Kenyan child of the world? I don’t see it. But then the times do rhyme.