Advancing a Free Society

And Now It's Obama's Turn...To Turn To Jimmy Carter?

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Now that Elvis has left the building – Bill Clinton having delivered the seventh major convention speech of his political lifetime – a favorite media guessing game is what previous embattled Democratic president Barack Obama might channel on Thursday night.

It’s safe to assume it won’t be Mr. Clinton, whose centrist tack and upbeat economic report in his 1996 acceptance speech (text and video) has no relevance in the current presidency. And that’s one of the underlying ironies of Clinton’s appearance on Wednesday night – Obama threw the Clinton presidency under the bus in 2008 by denouncing its “hyper-partisan” nature; in 2012, “frenemy” Clinton was asked to ride the Obama’s rescue.

Who, then, will Obama channel?

The most obvious choice would be Harry Truman, as Truman (a) ran against a do-nothing Republican Congress in 1948; and (b) is a revered underdog, which is how a sympathetic media would like to cast the current Democratic president over the next 60+ days.

The reality is Obama doesn’t hold up to Truman – neither in physical stature nor personal demeanor (the last time I checked, Obama wasn’t a short-tempered, bourbon-drinking poker player). Besides, that “do nothing” label? Al Gore trotted it out in July 2000 when he went after a “do-nothing-for-the-people Congress” (Gore thought it would be hunky-dory if Congress raised the minimum wage, cracked down on HMOs and passed a prescription-drug benefit).

So if Truman’s out, who does that leave for Obama’s avatar? Brace yourself, if might be the last Democrat who has trouble with the “are you better” question . . . Jimmy Carter.

You know what happened to Carter in 1980. After a bitter primary feud with Ted Kennedy, he lost 44 of 50 states to Ronald Reagan. Since then, he’s dwelled in something of a Democratic purgatory – beloved by the international Nobel crowd; not a welcome presence at his party’s national conventions (this year, the 87-year-old Carter did a video tribute for Obama that went largely unnoticed on the first night of the DNC).

So why the Obama-Carter parallel? Consider these passages from what the 39th president said in his 1980 acceptance speech (here’s the text and video).

Here’s what Carter said about his on-the-job growth:

“I've learned that only the most complex and difficult task comes before me in the Oval Office. No easy answers are found there, because no easy questions come there. I've learned that for a President, experience is the best guide to the right decisions. I'm wiser tonight than I was 4 years ago. And I have learned that the Presidency is a place of compassion. My own heart is burdened for the troubled Americans. The poor and the jobless and the afflicted-they've become part of me.”

That’s far better than the weak “incomplete” that Obama gave himself on the economy – and probably as close to Obama to come to reiterating Clinton’s “I feel your pain”.

Second, look for Obama to do something very similar to what Carter did in 1980 in the way of Republican-bashing:

“In their fantasy America, inner-city people and farm workers and laborers do not exist. Women, like children, are to be seen but not heard. The problems of working women are simply ignored. The elderly do not need Medicare. The young do not need more help in getting a better education. Workers do not require the guarantee of a healthy and a safe place to work. In their fantasy world, all the complex global changes of the world since World War II have never happened. In their fantasy America, all problems have simple solutions--simple and wrong. It's a make-believe world, a world of good guys and bad guys, where some politicians shoot first and ask questions later. No hard choices, no sacrifice, no tough decisions--it sounds too good to be true, and it is.”

Moreover, Obama could echo this other passage from Carter’s 1980 speech – how to revamp the economy – that underscores just how little the progressives’ fix-it kit has changed in the past 30 years:

“ . . . new industries to turn our own coal and shale and farm products into fuel for our cars and trucks and to turn the light of the sun into heat and electricity for our homes;”

“ . . . a modern transportation system of railbeds and ports to make American coal into a powerful rival of OPEC oil;”

“ . . . industries that will provide the convenience of futuristic computer technology and communications to serve millions of American homes and offices and factories;”

“ . . . job training for workers displaced by economic changes;”

“ . . . new investment pinpointed in regions and communities where jobs are needed most;”

“ . . . better mass transit in our cities and in between cities;”

“ . . . and a whole new generation of American jobs to make homes and vehicles and buildings that will house us and move us in comfort with a lot less energy.”

So there you have it: Carter’s economic vision in 1980 – alternative energies, high-tech, job-training, mass transit and smart planning – is pretty much the same hash that Obama’s serving up in 2012.

The funny thing about the 1980 Democratic National Convention: the one memorable speech from the affair wasn’t Carter’s. It was Kennedy conceding the nomination, and calling on delegates not to abandon the party’s progressive ideals (“ . . . the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die.").

Turns out the dream didn’t die. But, 32 years after it was trotted out in another convention, it’s stale and moldy fare for a President who’d have you believe he’s in forward gear.