PLAINS, Georgia — The tiny town of Plains, Georgia, is directly on the path between the Republican convention in Tampa and the Democratic conclave in Charlotte, but it's not a place Barack Obama would want to stop. This reminder of politics past could be the ghost of Obama's future, if he fails to win re-election. And while the parallels between his presidency and Jimmy Carter's are strained — both were outsiders promising change, but otherwise the men and the times differed considerably — Obama can look to Carter's hometown of Plains for a vision of what a post-one term presidency might look like.
The Carter for President banners still hang from storefronts in this tiny town, nestled in the red-clay country of southwestern Georgia. And passing by Billy Carter's gas station and the old Carter peanut warehouse, Americans of a certain age will remember just how large this cluster of images once loomed. The 1976 presidential election, the first after Watergate, was the most improbable in American history. Jimmy Carter was arguably the greatest longshot ever to pay off in American politics, and a harbinger of the return of grassroots democracy. But on the Saturday of Labor Day weekend there were no tourists in the welcome center, and only a handful of people in the town itself. The Jimmy Carter historical park, comprising the Carter farm and a exhibit at Carter's restored high school, attracted only a few stray visitors, wandering far from the Interstate.
Ronald Reagan, who defeated Carter in 1980 and went on to win a second term, is visible only in a group photo at the high school exhibit in Plains, but remains a vivid touchstone almost everywhere else in America: In death, he still defines the Republican Party's ideology and message, much as Franklin Roosevelt did for a half-century of Democrats. In Charlotte, the living, breathing Bill Clinton — the Arkansan who followed a Carter-like path to the presidency, but stayed for two terms — will have a convention day of his own, extending one of the longest acts in US politics.
For Obama, a second term promises a chance to preside over a more robust economic recovery and fully embed his political values in the national soil. He wants a future like Clinton's and a legacy to match Reagan's. A second term, in itself, is no guarantee: George W. Bush, who also won re-election, is arguably further off the political stage than Carter or George H. W. Bush, who also served a single term. What should be clear, though, is that if Obama is defeated, his election in 2008, like Carter's in 1976, will be remembered more as an aberration than a lasting breakthrough, another interlude in the era of Republican dominance touched off by Reagan's defeat of Carter.
But there's one way in which a visit to Plains would reassure Obama that life will endure, no matter what happens in November. The 88-year-old Carter was at home this weekend, preparing to teach another Sunday school class, on a quiet interlude in a post-presidential career that has been anything but quiet. Carter has proven that while some ex-presidents are permanently relegated to the sidelines of national politics, but they never lose their presidential aura, and that can be a valuable coin.
Carter's work supervising overseas elections, articulating his vision of Mideast peace, and sketching out a vision of Christian values has made for an important and meaningful post-presidential life. Political failure was his liberation. Now, the idea that Jimmy Carter was ever seen as a force for national renewal seems as strange and distant as the cans of Billy Beer still on sale in a Plains memorabilia shop. But the idea of Jimmy Carter as a force for advancement in the world isn't strange at all. If Obama is defeated, his first trip after leaving office should be to Plains.