Some have analogized Barack Obama’s current situation with that of Bill Clinton, who pushed a wholesale revision of the country’s health-care system in 1993 with results that should have served as a warning to Obama. But the more relevant analogy is with Jimmy Carter in 1977.
We are watching a replay of what happened with Carter, elected in 1976 as a repudiation of the hated Richard Nixon and his selected successor (and pardoner) Gerald Ford. Carter misinterpreted the election results as a mandate for sweeping change he thought he (an Annapolis graduate, nuclear engineer, and published author) was uniquely qualified to enact.
On December 17, 1977, reviewing Carter’s first year, Russell Baker wrote that:
When voting for Presidents . . . even learned persons seem temporarily to suspend disbelief in miracles. During the Carter campaign it was common to meet men and women who had marinated a quarter-century and more in politics and should, therefore, have been beyond innocence, yet who insisted, often with passion, that the Democrat Carter in harness with a Democratic Congress would do marvels for the Republic.
These marvels have not occurred.
Hedrick Smith, in a long analysis in the January 8, 1978, New York Times, summarized what had happened:
Jimmy Carter first surprised and impressed the professional pols in 1976 with the cold, cocksure, methodical manner with which he stalked the Presidency. The surprise of 1977 was that Jimmy Carter was actually not the master politician they had imagined. . . . President Carter’s exaggerated aspirations and his profusion of proposals invited inevitable disappointment.
Four years later, Carter published his memoirs, which (in the words of Times reviewer Terrence Smith in 1982) admitted he had “overloaded the legislative agenda” in his early months in office and “the result was that his most cherished domestic initiatives—welfare and tax reform and a national health program—went down to early defeat.” His presidency never fully recovered.
How had the American people elected someone with seemingly so much promise who fizzled so quickly? The day after Carter’s 1976 election, the Times explained how a one-term governor, with no significant record, had secured the nomination from more experienced rivals and defeated a sitting president. He did it with the same techniques that Obama would use 32 years later.
First, a slogan—repeated ad nauseam—promising voters a “government as good as the American people,” which not only promised change but made voters think that by voting for him it reflected well on them.
Second, presentation of himself as a unifier—a reconciliation of North and South, white and black, conservatives and liberals. He was certified as The One at the Democratic Convention, with the closing benediction of the father of Martin Luther King Jr., who told the delegates and the entire country watching on all three networks that “Surely the Lord sent Jimmy Carter to come on out and bring America back where she belongs.”
Third, the use of a new technique in American politics—the well-written autobiography as a substitute for prior accomplishments. The Times review, written by a member of the editorial board, called the book a blend of “personal history, social description and political philosophy that makes fascinating reading” and that assertedly showed that Carter was reminiscent of Theodore Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy in his commitment to “governing.”
After a year in office, it became apparent that a great slogan, image, and autobiography were not by themselves sufficient for an inexperienced politician with grandiose ideas to govern the United States. And Carter’s foreign-policy disasters were still ahead of him.
Bill Clinton’s first-year disaster came at a time when the Cold War had ended and he had a “peace dividend” to spend. He did not try to do everything at once and focused first on health care while deferring his plans to revise welfare. He faced no apparent foreign-policy challenge. His mistakes were ones that could be corrected with some new advisers and a little triangulation.
In contrast, Jimmy Carter faced a more dangerous world and soon had crises to deal with in Iran and Afghanistan for which he was woefully unprepared. Three decades later, a president is pursuing exaggerated aspirations and a profusion of proposals while a storm is gathering abroad. It is not a situation that will be solved by triangulation.