In the previous post, entitled Obscure, Unanticipated and Undistinguished Presidents, I produced a relatively short list of US presidents who earned these three epithets. To be on the list the person must have arrived at the White House far less well-known than the average entering chief executive; said arrival must have come as a surprise to most Americans; and the person must have been booted out of office as quickly as possible by the electorate following a wretched performance that yielded seriously deleterious consequences for the people and the country.
I pointed out that exactly which names were on the list was less important than the answers to the following four questions – which I attempted to supply:
- Is the third unpleasant feature, i.e., undistinguished, a highly likely consequence of the first two?
- A large number of the names on the list were VPs who ascended to the presidency upon the death of the incumbent. Was that a sufficient condition for a failed presidency?
- Between Jimmy Carter and the preceding president on the list, nearly a century passed. Why the long gap?
- What had changed in America in the 1960s and 1970s that allowed the phenomenon to reappear?
The reader is referred to the post below for the answers, the names on my list, and – for the pre-Carter names – the rationale for their appearance. However, perhaps overconfident about the reader’s agreement, I took it as virtually self-evident that Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama (who almost certainly will be booted in 2012) belong on the list. My goal here is to correct that oversight and enumerate the reasons why it is legitimate to consider both Carter and Obama to be obscure, unanticipated and undistinguished presidents. Then I’ll consider which of these two ranks lower than the other.
Carter. Obscure. Jimmy Carter had a career in the Navy, followed by a time as an entrepreneurial peanut farmer and then a stint in the Georgia State Legislature. He ran for Governor in 1966 and lost in the Democratic primary. Partly as a consequence, the arch-segregationist Lester Maddox became Governor. Maddox’s antics helped to prepare the people of Georgia for a more “moderate” candidate and Jimmy succeeded in 1970 to gain the Governor’s mansion. He served one term. In all four endeavors (naval officer, peanut farmer, State Legislator, Governor), Jimmy did satisfactorily. But in none of these pursuits did he amass an outstanding record as an innovator, exceptional leader, brilliant strategist or original thinker. Thus when he began his presidential quest in 1975, it was not surprising that he had a national name recognition rating of 2% among US voters. He might not have been the most obscure candidate to eventually reach the Oval Office (a title that I awarded to Chester Arthur in the previous article), but he was certainly in the top five.
Unanticipated. Among Carter’s competitors for the Democratic Party presidential nomination in 1976 were: Scoop Jackson, Walter Mondale, Birch Bayh, Lloyd Bentsen, Robert Byrd, Frank Church, Sargent Shriver, Morris Udall, Gerry Brown and George Wallace. All of these rivals were far better known than was Carter. But an obscure Governor from Georgia defeated six US Senators, the Governor of California and a distinguished member of the House. To say that no political handicapper gave Carter a snowball’s chance in hell of garnering the nomination is to understate any expectation in any quarter that the peanut farmer from Plains would be the next president. But, as an outsider untainted by Washington politics, Jimmy had something that none of his rivals possessed – namely, an immunity from the ill feelings felt by a huge percentage of Americans toward establishment candidates, due largely to the immense sour taste in the people’s mouths left by Watergate. Carter rode that bad taste all the way to the White House. Unanticipated, unexpected, unforeseen…these adjectives don’t do justice to the surprise Americans felt – based on what they knew of him scarcely a year earlier – when Jimmy took the oath of office in January, 1977.
Undistinguished. Carter’s list of negative achievements in the White House is long and painful to recite. But here goes:
- Carter created the Departments of Education and Energy – two rat holes down which the American people have poured something in the neighborhood of one trillion dollars in the last thirty years.
- He bailed out Chrysler Corp. Yes, that paragon of American business should have failed 30 years before it should have failed a few years ago.
- His Keynesian economic policies of enhanced regulation, high taxes, easy money and extravagant government spending created an economic mess that became known as stagflation – a stagnant economy accompanied by high inflation.
- Another term coined during Carter’s presidency was the misery index – the sum of the inflation rate and the unemployment rate. Carter’s misery index topped 20%, a rate rarely seen in the nation’s history.
- His policies of energy deprivation and misallocation of scarce resources brought us the infamous gas lines.
- His program for dealing with the energy crisis was to put on a cardigan sweater, turn down the heat in the White House and instruct Americans to get used to a lower standard of living.
- He topped that bad advice by telling Americans that they suffered from “malaise” and that America’s day in the sun was over.
- He signed the Community Reinvestment Act – whose poisonous bounty would not appear for another 30 years.
- He surrendered the Panama Canal.
- He counseled Americans to get over their “inordinate fear of Communism” as the Soviets advanced from Afghanistan to Angola and everywhere else on the planet.
- He engineered the fall of the Shah – a staunch American ally; abetted the formation of the terrorist, Islamic regime in Iran led by the Ayatollah Khomeini; and then watched helplessly as Khomeini’s thugs imprisoned innocent American hostages in Teheran – thereby ignoring an act of war upon the United States.
- He belatedly authorized a rescue mission, which, due in part to his having hollowed out the military, failed spectacularly.
- Carter’s boldest step in foreign policy was to have the US boycott the 1980 Moscow Olympics as a pathetic protest against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
Jimmy did enjoy one signature success: the Camp David accords that achieved a cold, but enduring peace between Israel and Egypt – although recent events in the region call into question just how enduring. It garnered for him the Nobel Peace Prize – a rare occasion when said prize was truly earned. However, that achievement pales in comparison to the avalanche of failure encompassed in the above 13 items.
Obama. Obscure. In truth, mysterious is a better adjective to describe Obama’s background. We know so little about: his youth, how his remarkable educational opportunities became available to him, how he financed that education, what warranted his selection as president of the Harvard Law Review, who really guided his path in Chicago in the 1990s and why in the few elections he contested his opponents always seemed to disappear. What little we know is: his childhood was spent in Hawaii and Indonesia; his father deserted him when he was a toddler and paid him only one visit thereafter (when Obama was about 10); his flake of a mother also essentially abandoned him and he was raised by her parents; he attended Occidental College and Columbia University; then worked for a time in two public interest firms in NY; then three years in Chicago as a community organizer; then Harvard Law; followed by another period in Chicago doing community development-type stuff and teaching as an adjunct faculty member at the University of Chicago Law School. We know virtually nothing of substance about any of these activities, exactly what he did or how well he performed. He served in the Illinois State Senate for a few terms, with little note. He won a strange race for the Senate seat in Illinois in 2004 and spent almost all of his time in the Senate running for President. Prior to his speech to the Democratic convention in 2004, he was totally unknown. Four years later he was elected President. Obscure, mysterious, enigmatic…perhaps the Manchurian candidate. I think Arthur must cede to Obama the title that I granted to him.
Unanticipated. Given his obscure and nebulous background, it would be natural that his ascension to the presidency would be unanticipated. But it was so in a way somewhat different from Carter’s. Carter had to overcome a formidable array of qualified and well-known competitors. Obama only had to vanquish one – Hillary Clinton. The nomination was widely viewed as hers for the asking, and indeed her competition was extraordinarily weak. In addition to Obama, it consisted primarily of Bill Richardson, Dennis Kucinich, Mike Gravel, John Edwards, Chris Dodd and Joe Biden – a pathetically feeble field, almost laughable. The Clinton machine was geared up and the result was considered foreordained. But Barack had other ideas. He ran a brilliant campaign aided by Hillary’s ongoing inability to break out of the 40s in voter approval, a sinister media cover-up of Obama’s shortcomings, a sense of guilt felt by a huge number of Americans that it was time to lay to rest the country’s bleak history of racial oppression by electing a black man president, and the attendant unwillingness to truthfully consider Obama’s past, his associates, his disturbing utterances and his unabashedly extreme left-wing voting record (meager as it was). Then he had the good fortune of encountering a weak, old, out of touch opponent who enjoyed little support in the conservative base of the Republican Party. All that said, if you had asked most Americans in 2007 who would be the next president, hardly anyone would have anticipated Barack Obama.
Undistinguished. Here one must be more subjective. History has not had a chance to render its verdict on Obama yet. Even for Carter, the record is still relatively fresh, but he was so bad that history has rendered its verdict quickly and it is summarized above. Now what about Obama? Given that he is still in office, it would normally not be feasible to assess – especially from a historical point of view – the quality of his presidency. But I submit that although one cannot be as specific as in the case of Carter, one can provide broad brush indictments that I believe earn Obama an honored place among the most undistinguished presidents of the Republic:
- Dealt a bad economic hand, he doubled down on all the policies that gave rise to the economic problems, thereby making a bad situation even worse; he has set us on a path of chronic high unemployment, miniscule or non-existent economic growth, incipient inflation and a lower standard of living for the foreseeable future for most Americans.
- Faced with a gargantuan federal government, wracked by unsustainable debt, he ratcheted up spending, corporate statism, federal regulation (Dodd-Franks), taxes (where he could) and union favoritism; he exploded the debt and has accelerated America’s declining economic and social fortunes.
- Against the manifestly expressed will of the people, he jammed universal health care down their throats, simultaneously damaging the quality of America’s outstanding health care enterprise and exacerbating the economic problems mentioned above.
- In those instances in which he and his Congressional allies failed to enact legislation to implement other egregiously bad policies – e.g., card check, cap and trade, amnesty for illegal aliens – he engaged the assistance of his unconfirmed White House czars and the leftwing henchmen that he selected to head various federal agencies in order to bypass Congress and implement his disastrous policies by dubious executive actions.
- He denigrated our allies, coddled our foes, diminished our military arsenal and cast American world leadership out the window, thereby crippling America’s prestige and empowering the forces of darkness on the planet.
- His treatment of arguably our staunchest ally, Israel, bears special mention. Aside from the appalling manner in which he has backstabbed the Jewish State and purposefully humiliated its Prime Minister, his behavior toward Israel accurately reflects his anti-American, anti-Western, anti-liberty, anti-free market (and some would add anti-Semitic) world view. He is the first American president who is not a patriot. He is ashamed of the United States, asserts that American exceptionalism does not exist, subjugates America to “international law,” and even more egregiously than Carter, seeks to arrange and manage America’s decline from its unique standing as the most successful model of freedom and prosperity the world has ever seen into just another Euro-style, ordinary welfare state. He is committed not to Jefferson’s “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” but more to Robespierre’s, “liberté, egalité, fraternité.”
As with Carter, Obama does have one positive notch on his belt: the killing of Bin Laden. But also like Carter, that signal achievement is drowned by the tsunami of disasters that he has caused.