Ed Driscoll

Obama: Still Trapped in Carter Country

As Ed Morrissey quips, “Who knew that Hope and Change could be so bleak and monotonous?” After quoting the New York Times’ efforts in damage control for their man at the other end of the Northeast Corridor, Ed writes, “It’s not the first time the media has noticed that Obama is a bit of a loner:”

 A month ago, Newsweek/Daily Beast editor Tina Brown told Joe Scarborough how little Obama likes his job.  The month before that, a spate of news articles hit the stands about Obama’s aloofness, his bad relationships with political allies, and general lack of people skills.  Chris Matthews even openly wondered just before Thanksgiving why Obama wants another term, and why Obama seems incapable of making an argument for what he would do with one.

Never fear, though.  The NYT found a great resource of advice for Obama in his time of solitude and isolation:

“It’s about building relationships,” said Gerald Rafshoon, a television producer who was President Jimmy Carter’s communications director. “Some people are saying he’s a recluse. You don’t want that reputation. He needs to show that he likes people.” Mr. Rafshoon’s old boss, an outsider to Washington when he became president, recently wrote in his book “White House Diary” that he did not socialize enough when he was the chief executive.

Jimmy Carter had a lot of problems as President (and perhaps more as a former President), and lack of socializing may well have been one of them.  Carter didn’t get the boot because he was a loner, though; he got the boot because he had nothing to offer to fix a chronically stagnating economy and had gotten bullied on the foreign stage.  Obama’s done somewhat better on foreign policy than Carter, although not by a whole lot, but has an even worse economy than Carter’s with no clear policy on how to fix it.  All Obama has done is take a page from Carter’s predecessor Gerald Ford in offering a bunch of meaningless slogans like Recovery Summer, this administration’s Whip Inflation Now, combined with self-defeating short-term gimmickry.

Is that really the analogy the New York Times wants to make? Certainly both men have thoroughly alienated Congress — in Obama’s case, the GOP (unlike Bill Clinton, who would work with then-Speaker Newt Gingrich in a sly attempt at centrist triangulation, one that was ultimately successful for Clinton in 1996), in Carter’s case, his own, Steve Hayward wrote in the first volume of The Age of Reagan:

When the new Speaker of the House, Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill, arrived for Carter’s inaugural dinner on January 20, 1977, he was stunned to find himself and his guests seated at the furthest table in the balcony, far away from the new president. “The next morning,” O’Neill wrote in his memoirs, “I called Hamilton Jordan and said, ‘Listen, you son of a bitch. When a guy is Speaker of the House and his family gets the worst seats in the room, he figures there’s a reason behind it. I have to believe that you did that deliberately.’ ‘If that’s the way you feel about it,’ he replied, ‘we’ll give you back the three hundred dollars.’ ‘Don’t be a wise guy,’ I said. ‘I’ll ream your ass before I’m through.’” From that moment on, O’Neill referred to Carter’s top aide as “Hannibal Jerkin.”

O’Neill’s bad seats were not an oversight; Jordan had put him in the back of the room on purpose, as a none-too-subtle signal of his contempt for the Democratic establishment he and Carter’s campaign had routed in the long march to the White House. (In 1979 Jordan offered O’Neill a groveling apology for his arrogance.) But the low opinion of Congress wasn’t limited to Jordan. Carter himself had scant respect for Congress, apparently considering it little more than a swollen version of the Georgia state legislature that he regarded contemptuously during his single term as a state senator, and which he successfully steamrollered during his governorship. In his first meeting with Speaker O’Neill before Inauguration Day, Carter said as much, telling the Speaker that when the Georgia state legislature had blocked him, he went over their heads to the people, and would not hesitate to do so with Congress. “I can talk to your constituents easier than you can,” Carter said.

O’Neill was shocked, asking Carter, “You don’t mean to tell me you’re comparing the House and Senate with the Georgia legislature? Hell, Mr. President, you’re making a big mistake.” As O’Neill put it in his memoirs, “I tried to explain how important it is for the president to work closely with the Congress. He didn’t seem to understand.”

But then, as Hayward noted elsewhere in his book, there were certainly rather interesting limits to Carter’s understanding of how the world worked:

Following a conversation with Carter about theology during the campaign, the liberal journalist (and former seminarian) Garry Wills observed: “For a bright and educated modern man, dealing with the thing he says matters most to him, he shows an extraordinarily reined-in curiosity. It suggests a kind of willed narrowness of mastery.” Years later, after Carter left the White House, Wills returned to this theme, writing that Carter’s “narrow and repetitive intensity of his thought about religion … was one key to the personal narrowness that remains one’s lasting impression of him in the presidency.” William F. Buckley Jr. would later summarize the problem with Carter thus: “Mr. Carter’s difficulty is his overweening idealistic appetite combined with the humiliation of living in a sinful world.”

Obama’s definition of sinful is very different from Carter’s. As Mark Steyn noted in After America, Obama was asked on the campaign trail by Cathleen Falsani, the religion correspondent for the Chicago Sun-Times, “What is sin?” Obama replied, “Being out of alignment with my values.” But there’s no doubt, the two have much in common. Both think they can negotiate with intractable enemies (Soviet totalitarianism in Carter’s case, Islamic totalitarianism in Obama’s). Both have been existentially blindsided when the world didn’t move as their ideology told them it must.

And both are very insular men who conned voters with a faux-sunny exterior when they ran for the White House. As Hayward wrote:

The Washington Post’s Sally Quinn observed: “The conventional image of a sexy man is one who is hard on the outside and soft on the inside. Carter is just the opposite.” Fellow Southern Baptist Bill Moyers said, “In a ruthless business, Mr. Carter is a ruthless operator, even if he wears his broad smile and displays his southern charm.” Speechwriter Bob Shrum, who left Carter’s campaign after just 10 days because of his doubts about Carter’s veracity, said “There were no private smiles.”

Flash-forward to 2011. At the American Thinker (found via Jim Geraghty) Carol Brown writes:

Obama doesn’t like people. He likes himself.

He appears to have a long-standing pattern of disconnection from others. Where are the voices of those who grew up with him, went to school with him, worked with him? It is eerily quiet.

Naturally, there are those who disagree with the notion that our president is aloof.

Despite the narrative in Washington of Mr. Obama as a loner, his friends and aides say he likes people just fine. He looked positively ebullient when he worked the crowd at a hangar last Wednesday at Fort Bragg, N.C., reaching out to nearly every one of 3,000 troops returning from Iraq.

No surprises there. Obama knows how to work a crowd. Apparently, he is downright ebullient when doing so. But that is not the same thing as liking other human beings and connecting with them. Working the crowd is about his ego. And a photo op.

Obama holds himself apart.

Something about him is off kilter.

And lots of people know it.

Republicans and Democrats, alike.

As Jim Treacher wrote earlier this year, “Becoming president is a narcissist’s dream. Having to do the job is his nightmare.” That’s a lesson America — not the least of which the MSM — needs to relearn on a regular basis, it seems.

Update: “And you can count on one thing,” Peter Wehner writes at Commentary, in a post on “Obama’s Childish Playacting” and his never-ending narcissism. “If Obama is defeated in 2012, his narrative will be that we the American people were not worthy of the Great and Mighty Obama. Perhaps we can take some comfort that no people on Earth possibly could be.”

That was Carter’s assessment of his own failed presidency, if I recall correctly.