What Obama Might have Learned from Carter

July 1, 2008

In Obama’s talk about patriotism he called attention to similarities in attitudes between people now and in the 1960’s. He spoke about how people in the civil rights movement and the anti-war movements were labeled unpatriotic and un-American. He talked a little about how people’s urge to be patriotic can be misused for political purposes. There are certainly very obvious similarities between then and now. Perhaps most obviously dissenters are still branded un-American or unpatriotic. I doubt that this will ever change; it’s such an easy tool. The country built on a revolution has become rather resistant to criticism of military policy and such things.

I though have been thinking more about connections between the present circumstances and the 1970’s. Nixon’s departure left the country to some degree searching for a purpose, an identity. His administration was identified with corruption, secrecy, illegal surveillance, and abuse of power. The ensuing election ushered in a president who campaigned on hope and change. He was not associated with the beltway and promised to clean out Washington’s dark corners, to do things a new way, a fresh start.

Carter came in having promised to eliminate the tax loop holes benefiting corporations, so that they would pay their fair share. He wanted healthcare reform and to reduce the high price of hospitalization.

The post Viet Nam economy though was faltering. The Republican administration had left behind a huge trade deficit and a drastically devalued dollar. Unemployment and inflation were creeping upwards. The price of gasoline was going up and people were becoming increasingly wary of our dependence on Mideastern oil, particularly with OPEC tinkering with the supply.

The Democrats had a substantial majority in Congress due in part to the country’s disillusionment with the failed Republican administration. Carter was a very hard working president and soon presented to the Congress a remarkably thorough and well thought out budget that in fact eliminated many of the tax breaks given to corporations. It was thoroughly trashed by the Democratic Congress and never got anywhere. Carter’s party was too entrenched and beholden to special interests to support his efforts.

Carter failed to get Congressional support for his national health-insurance bill or his proposals for welfare reform and controls on hospital costs. He could not get Congressional approval to consolidate natural-resource agencies within the Department of the Interior. He could not get Congress to approve expanded economic development units in the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

He was hung out to dry by the Democratic Party. In so doing, the Democrats lost an historic opportunity to seize the slack reins of government and take it in a new direction. The Democrats more or less imploded. The party offered only more of the same. At the next election the Republicans captured the mood for change and harnessed the dissatisfaction with the Democrats, and the Reagan era was launched.

While using a contemporary brand of Carter’s themes, Obama is not running as an outsider. In fact he seems to be earnestly trying to insinuate himself into the party establishment. This is troubling to many people who supported him. On the other hand he may be taking necessary steps to realize his goals. It remains to be seen whether Obama’s vision will be sacrificed or realized by this approach.