Sunday Reflection: When Jimmy Carter Is your best-case scenario, you're in trouble

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People on the right have been comparing President Obama with Jimmy Carter for a while now: The rise from nowhere via inexplicable press adulation, the smarmy moralizing, the excessive faith in his own abilities, the tendency of everything he touches to turn to crap -- all seem eerily reminiscent of the Carter presidency.

But now it's people on the left who are saying the same thing. Trouble is, at this point a Carter rerun is probably a best-case scenario.

Democrat Eric Alterman writes: "Ask yourself if the following story does not sound like another president we could name. The gregarious Massachusetts pol, House Speaker Tip O'Neill, could hardly have been more eager to work with a Democratic president after eight years of Nixon and Ford.

"But when they first met, and O'Neill attempted to advise Carter about which members of Congress might need some special pleading, or even the assorted political favor or two with regard to certain issues, to O'Neill's open-jawed amazement, Carter replied, 'No, I'll describe the problem in a rational way to the American people. I'm sure they'll realize I'm right.' The red-nosed Irishman later said he 'could have slugged' Carter over this lethal combination of arrogance and naivete, but it would soon become Carter's calling card."

But it's worse than that. I see Alterman's point, but we've reached the point where this sort of comparison works more as a defense of Obama than a critique.

First, Obama doesn't rely on rational description to persuade the American people, but rather on his -- now seemingly shrunken -- oratorical skills, without regard to substance.

And, second, rather than pushing a program he thought was rational over the objections of the Democratic congressional leadership, Obama virtually outsourced the stimulus and health care legislation to Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi, producing a misshapen mass of special-interest giveways that did little for the economy or for health, and that created massive public indignation. Obama here was like Carter without the engineer's rationality, or force of personality.

Obama is worse in another way. Though Carter had a mean streak, he was not prone to divide and name-call in the way that Obama has done. From his remarks about bitter clingers to his administration's increasing willingness to call any criticism racist, Obama's administration has been far more divisive than Carter's.

Likewise, the Obama administration has shown a thuggish streak, involving everything from "jokes" about Internal Revenue Service audits to the recent National Labor Relations Board attack on Boeing's factory move from a unionized plant in Washington state to a plant in South Carolina where workers had voted to go nonunion, that was not so pronounced under Carter. Call it the difference between Plains and Chicago.

Carter looked hapless in the face of high energy prices, but Obama actually seems pleased: He announced early on that his policies would necessarily cause electricity prices to "skyrocket," and his recent town-hall response to a man who complained about the cost of his commute was a suggestion that the man trade his car in and buy a hybrid.

To Carter, higher energy prices were an insoluble problem; to Obama, they're a tool to encourage Americans to live more constrained lives -- and perhaps to buy a Chevy Volt from the bailed-out General Motors.

Meanwhile, on foreign policy -- another Carter weak point -- Obama also looks worse. Carter blew it with Iran, encouraging the Iranian armed forces to stay in their barracks, while Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's radical Islamists (whom Carter thought of as "reformers") took power, and then approved the ill-conceived hostage rescue mission that ended with ignominious failure in the desert. Obama, by contrast, could only wish for such success.

At the moment, Obama is involved in three wars, and in two of them he is losing. (The third, ironically, is the war he ran against, in Iraq, where things seem to be going comparatively well).

Afghanistan appears to have turned into (at best) a stalemate, with drone attacks of the sort Obama the candidate criticized being our chief weapon. Libya, a war that Obama started at the behest of the "lady hawks" in his Cabinet (Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice, and Special Assistant Samantha Power), has been a half-hearted, run-by-committee affair that has mostly served as a reminder that NATO can't do very much without the United States firmly in charge.

In Egypt, where Obama supported the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak (a reliable, if unappetizing, U.S. client) by a different bunch of reformers, polls now show the United States is disliked by three-quarters, while a similar number look favorably on the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood.

In Syria, where there is a popular revolt against a genuine U.S. enemy, the Obama administration has been conspicuous by its absence. Apparently, Syria's reformers don't pass the test.

Then, of course, there is the economy. Carter had big government, but Obama has brought us monstrous government, running up bigger deficits in the first half of his first term than Bush did in eight years and increasing the national debt by more than 50 percent.

The stimulus, which was touted as a way of keeping unemployment below 8 percent, couldn't even keep it out of double digits, and even now 8 percent looks pretty good by comparison with what we've got.

But while all that spending didn't stabilize unemployment as promised, it did destabilize America's credit rating. As bad as things were under Carter, the United States wasn't at risk of a credit downgrade, as it is now.

Plus, inflation is beginning to ramp up, as gas and grocery prices skyrocket. Some worry that the inflation rates of the Carter era will look mild by comparison with what's coming down the pike.

And that's the lesson: Up to now, comparisons with Carter were a tool of Obama's critics. From now on, they're likely to be a tool of his defenders. Because as bad as Carter was, Obama is shaping up to be worse. Much worse.

Examiner Sunday Reflection contributor Glenn Harlan Reynolds is founder and editor of Instapundit.com blog and a law professor at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville.

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