President Obama isn’t the new Carter, but he just might be the new (first) Bush
Months before Election Day, the name of Jimmy Carter had assumed an incantatory power among observers of politics. President Obama’s supporters began to fret that his presidency was declining as Carter’s did, while his opponents salivated at the prospect, as though the more the 39th president was mentioned, the worse the chances of the 44th. In addition to columnists and bloggers, historians Walter Russell Mead and Sean Wilentz have written on the comparison, while Carter’s vice president, Walter Mondale, has worried over it. Carter himself recently discussed it with Larry King.
Is Obama the next Carter? Leaving aside for the moment the facility and myopia of this analogy — we’ve had 17 one-term presidents — its details are off. Obama and Carter are both Democrats, true, both are intellectuals who came into office on a wave of discontent, and both promised new approaches to government and the world. What candidates don’t? Obama seems to like Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu even less than Carter liked Menachim Begin, and Carter faced a crisis in Iran, a new eruption of terrorist threats, and economic woes, though all of very different sorts than those facing Obama.
But where Carter, a notorious micromanager and hand-wringer, appeared to bog down in the carpet fibers of the presidency, a common complaint about Obama is that he’s in the clouds. Where Carter was said to have a morose and pedantic outlook, Obama is accused of being, rather, cerebral and aloof — related charges, maybe, but not the same. Recounting Carter’s fumbling Mideast statecraft in his book “A World of Trouble,” Patrick Tyler described an “obsessive technocrat who wore his idealism like a crucifix and his pragmatism like a slide rule clipped to his waistband.” That’s not Obama.
Yet there is a recent one-term president he resembles. George H.W. Bush doesn’t often come up in discussions of Obama, but two years into Obama’s term, the two presidents’ tenures bear a striking resemblance. So too do their governing styles and temperaments, and even, unlikely though it may seem, their speech. Here are two leaders “buffeted by circumstance,” as the presidential historian Bert Rockman characterized Bush, whose same signal qualities in repulsing buffets and discussing them with the public — sobriety, patience, and, yes, prudence, to use Bush-impersonator Dana Carvey’s favorite Bushism — are often enough their least appreciated.
But why attempt the comparison at
all? Isn’t analyzing the doings of one White House frustrating enough? Were we able to travel back in time and stand behind each of the 44 presidents as they went about a day in office, we’d no doubt find the diversity of problems they faced and the ways they faced them makes drawing parallels laughable. Despite working in the Oval Office, each successive occupant of it is a nonpareil.
Still, the practice feels necessary. Why? Most simply, because comparison is how we learn, how we judge. Comparing Obama to Carter, even if it’s to express disfavor, is a way of fitting him into a group, of trying to understand him and the challenges of his job. It’s a way of familiarizing him. That Obama is the first African-American president makes this impulse all the stronger. Similarly, while presidents have been compared since John Adams succeeded George Washington, when we’re talking about a young president with scant public record prior to his election, past presidential performances are one of the few available yardsticks.
So let’s compare, first, those historical buffets. In the first year of Bush’s term, he was beset by three unforeseen calamities that are eerily resonant. First was the savings & loan crisis. Facilitated by deregulation and a mortgage bubble, the S&L crisis threatened the country’s banking system by the time of Bush’s inaugural. Unpopular though he knew the move would be, Bush and Congress put together a massive tax-funded rescue. The public didn’t understand the disastrous alternative scenario, and the move was assailed as a bailout of reckless bankers.
Then, in the spring of 1989, student-led protestors began assembling in Tiananmen Square in Beijing, and in June Chinese police and soldiers took to beating and murdering them. Like Obama, Bush came into office with higher than average respect from foreign leaders, but he had to shelve plans to improve American-Chinese relations, a blow to his larger ambitions to redefine American engagement with the Communist world. He cut off diplomatic ties to China after Tiananmen, but, a committed internationalist, he believed engagement was eventually the right strategy. He was roundly criticized for not doing enough to support the protestors.
That didn’t turn as many people against him as what was, until this year, the worst man-made natural disaster in American history. In March of 1989 the Exxon Valdez spilled hundreds of thousands of gallons of crude oil into Prince William Sound. Since “everybody now expects the man inside the White House to do something about everything,” as the presidential historian Richard Neustadt observed in his study “Presidential Power,” Bush, a former oilman, bore only somewhat less blame than Exxon.
Jump to 2009-10: The Troubled Asset Relief Program and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, otherwise known as the stimulus, are seen by many Americans as bailouts, not legitimate attempts to stave off economic catastrophe. (TARP was created by the George W. Bush administration, but according to recent polls two-thirds of Americans attribute it to Obama.) Obama, who has arrived in office with the hopes of foreign leaders and populations riding high, wants to redefine relations with, most of all, the Muslim world, but before he has the chance there are protests, and then violent crackdowns, in Tehran. (Unlike the crisis Carter faced in 1979, this was not a revolution, and the Iranian government was in no danger of crumbling.) He is criticized for not expressing enough support for the protestors, criticism that pales in comparison to that of his handling of the
George H. W. Bush came into office facing what many economists called the worst economic downturn since the Depression, accompanied by a collapse in the real estate market and a Wall Street racked by scandal and stock market decline. He succeeded a president, Ronald Reagan, who staked his reputation on limited government while expanding it in certain costly areas, particularly the military, leaving record deficits. Though Bush would have liked to do more in domestic policy, he was constrained not just by money, but by a widespread public conviction, inflamed by Reagan, that government “is the problem.” Bush pollster Robert Teeter recognized this early on, seeing that while Americans were revolted by the “private interest” excesses of the Reagan era — as Bush himself was — they were also unwilling to embrace the “public purpose” alternative.
Twenty years later, Obama followed on the heels of a self-proclaimed Reagan Republican whose tenure ended in straits like those Reagan’s had. And Obama faced the same conundrum: He campaigned on the promise of a renewed sense of public purpose, and perhaps the most fundamental misreading of the public he made was thinking that what even many conservatives wanted, after George W. Bush, was not smaller government but rather more competent big government. Long before they’d occurred, the 2010 elections were deemed a rejection of that notion.
It’s little remembered now that a renewed sense of public purpose was also Bush’s hope. We recall with amused pity the phrases “a thousand points of light” and “a kinder, gentler America,” but those ideas meant something to Bush. He’d studied at the feet of the policy mandarins who surrounded his father, Connecticut Senator Prescott Bush, conservative men who nonetheless believed in the ability of government to improve people’s lives, a proposition Reagan made his name maligning. Though he first ran as a Goldwater conservative, as a young congressman — like Obama but unlike Carter, Reagan, Bill Clinton, and George W., he came out of the Legislature — Bush proved his mettle by bravely voting for Lyndon Johnson’s fair housing bill, after Johnson had announced he wasn’t seeking reelection, and over the objections of Bush’s incensed white Houston constituents.
In 1988, Bush could not run openly on reversing his predecessor’s policies, as Obama would later run against his son, but he did so tacitly. He was troubled by the rampant deregulation and decline in social services funding of the 1980s. Indeed, one slogan of his campaign, since forgotten, was “We Are The Change!” (add “we seek” to the end of that, and you have an oft-repeated slogan of the Obama campaign).
As president, Bush signed into law the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990. He put the full weight of the White House behind renewing the Clean Air and Water Acts (a coup Obama would be lucky to equal). He effected the first minimum wage increase in a decade. Most gallingly for his friends on Wall Street, in the wake of the S&L crisis he approved the most significant package of financial regulation reforms until 2010’s Consumer Financial Protection Act.
In his inaugural address, in which he studiously eschewed the folksy populism of Carter, Obama pledged that Americans were “ready to lead once more.” Similarly Bush predicted a “new world order” led by America, a phrase that would come to haunt him in the 1992 primaries. “Is George Bush merely an idealist or are there now plans underway to merge the interests of the US and the Soviet Union in the United Nations,” Pat Robertson drooled in his campaign book, “and install a socialist ‘world order’ in place of a free market system?” If that rings a bell, it may be because you’ve been watching clips of Glenn Beck.
There is also a rhetorical similarity between the two presidents. Obama is better spoken and more inspiring than was Bush, but, like Obama, Bush’s central rhetorical fault — how he eventually lost the public — was that he was always cool, always rational. He knew what he wanted, and what he’d done, but, like Obama, he was almost bashful about explaining as much to Americans, going so far as to cross many of the I’s out of his addresses. Bush press secretary Marlin Fitzwater lamented that his boss’s approach to message politics was “If I am doing the right thing, I can take any punishment.” Bush himself admitted, “I’m not good at expressing the concerns of a nation — I’m just not very good at it.”
Like Obama, Bush had a cerebral, deliberative, occasionally paradoxical way of speaking. In a fascinating study, “Personality Profiles of the 1992 Presidential Candidates as Derived from their Speech Patterns,” a pair of speech pathologists found that Bush’s most hobbling tendency as a speaker was not his well-known gaffes, which many people actually found endearing, but his Obama-esque fondness for retractors — “but,” “however,” “nevertheless,” and other such words that suggest active thought but also reversals of course.
The presidential historian Richard Hofstadter, who perfected the art of comparing chief executives, pointed out that the activity was a cultural necessity. “A longing to recapture the past, in fact, has itself been such a basic ingredient of the recent American past that no history of political thinking is complete which does not attempt to explain it,” Hofstadter wrote in “The American Political Tradition.” In other words, as Americans, we ply a kind of hyper-nostalgia. Hence every officeholder runs on the promise of restoring tradition, acknowledging as little as possible that America has many governmental traditions, not just one, a fact writ large in the presidency. It is said that nothing can prepare a candidate for the highest office. Maybe then we must compare presidents precisely because they are nonpareils? The presidency is an embodiment of so many traditions, a job of such power, of such complexity and thanklessness, there is no standard of measurement for it except itself.
This winter, Obama will face what promises to be a bitter debate over the deficit and taxes. Commentators will no doubt compare it to the budget battle of 1995-96, when Washington shut down. A better parallel, however, would be the fiscal debate Bush faced in 1990. More than anything, it proved the undoing of his presidency. Bush wrote in his diary at the time that he knew a decision to raise taxes might cost him reelection. He also knew that the cavalier spirit behind his “read my lips!” campaign pledge, while popular, was unwise — which is to say unlike George H.W. Bush. So he agreed to raise taxes.
Never mind that the deficit reduction bill he signed paved the way for the surpluses of the 1990s, or that his tax increase was actually smaller than an earlier one forced upon Reagan in percentage of gross domestic product: Republican legislators abandoned Bush over the decision. Their treacherous logic was voiced by Minnesota Congressman Vin Weber: “What is good for the president may well be good for the country, but it is not necessarily good for congressional Republicans. We need wedge issues to beat incumbent Democrats.”
If that sentiment sounds familiar, it’s because you encountered it a few weeks ago — but not from Republicans. It summed up the playbook of Democrats running for their lives, away from Obama’s policies. It resulted in the loss of the House of Representatives.
James Verini is a journalist in New York. You can read his work at www.jamesverini.com.