Obama's Awful '70s Show on Gas Prices Echoes Jimmy Carter

Gas prices are heading toward $5, single-family home sales are at a low—and with President Obama ignoring his base like Jimmy Carter did, he could end up being another one-term president, Eric Alterman writes.

04.24.11 9:16 PM ET

Can You Spell “M-A-L-A-I-S-E?”

Stylistically speaking, Barack Obama could hardly be further from Jimmy Carter if he really had been born in Kenya. Carter was a born-again Baptist who was raised on his father’s peanut plantation and supported George Wallace on the road to the Georgia state house. Barack Obama—well, you know the story. But the two men have a great deal in common in their approach to the presidency, and not one of these similarities is good news for the Democrats or even for America. Both men rule without regard to the concerns of the base of their party. Both held themselves to be above politics when it came to making tough decisions. Both were possessed with superhuman self-confidence when it came to their own political judgment mixed with contempt for what they understood to be the petty concerns of pundits and party leaders. And worst of all, one fears, neither one appeared willing to change course no matter how many storm clouds loomed on the horizon.

Ask yourself if the following story does not sound like another president we could name The gregarious Massachusetts pol, House Speaker Tip O’Neill, could hardly have been more eager to work with a Democratic president after eight years of Nixon and Ford. But when they first met, and O’Neill attempted to advise Carter about which members of Congress might need some special pleading, or even the assorted political favor or two with regard to certain issues, to O’Neill’s open-jawed amazement, Carter replied, “No, I’ll describe the problem in a rational way to the American people. I’m sure they’ll realize I’m right.” The red-nosed Irishman later said he “could have slugged” Carter over this lethal combination of arrogance and naivety, but it would soon become Carter’s calling card.

Well that was the ‘70s, you say, and America is a different country these days. True enough, but while history never repeats itself, political patterns do. More and more, Democrats are starting to worry they that they have a more um, colorful version of Jimmy Carter on their hands. Obama acts cool as a proverbial cucumber but that awful ‘70s show seems frightfully close to a rerun. Consider the following and see if the hair on your arms doesn’t start to stand up straight in a horror-movie kind of way:

• Multiple news organizations are reporting that gas prices are rising so fast, we could easily face a summer of $5-a-gallon prices at the pump. • The New York Times reports that, “New single-family home sales are now lower than at any point since the data was first collected in 1963, when the nation had 120 million fewer residents.” Instead of nice, new houses, buyers are looking for something small, cheap and (thanks to rising gas prices) close to work. Foreclosure homes are all the rage, even as we apparently emerge from a recession. “That often means buying a home out of foreclosure from a bank,” the Times said. • Politico reports that organized labor is losing patience with the president. As unemployment remains near 9 percent, the president is pushing business-friendly trade agreements in Latin America with little concern for their impact on labor at home, or even abroad. In Colombia, for instance, it’s not safe to be a labor leader. Rep. Mike Michaud (D-Maine), who chairs the House Trade Working Group, says he is “appalled that the administration is putting forward this action plan as the answer to Colombia’s rampant human rights and labor rights violations.” Politico also notes that "a larger group of liberal Democrats—including close Pelosi allies George Miller (D-Calif.), Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) and Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.)—last month demanded assurances from Obama that 'Colombia’s long track record of repression, violence and murder of labor unionists has truly changed,’” but Obama nevertheless "subsequently hosted Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos at a cordial White House meeting to promote the trade agreement." • The Times also reports that “Americans are more pessimistic about the nation’s economic outlook and overall direction than they have been at any time since President Obama’s first two months in office,” with well fewer than 50 percent expressing confidence in the president’s leadership or the direction in which he’s taking the country. • Meanwhile, Obama, like Carter, is reacting to these warning signs not by rallying his own side, or focusing on those aspects of his party’s platforms that remain popular, but by seeking to split the difference between dispirited Democrats and increasingly radicalized Republicans. According to recent polls, only 29 percent of Americans questioned believe that this rush to slash the deficit will help create jobs. Seventy-two percent favor Obama’s promise to restore pre-Bush tax rates for those enjoying incomes of $250,000 a year, but of course he caved on that in 2010, and it’s hard to see why he won’t do so again in another election year. When asked specifically about Medicare, those questioned say they are willing to pay higher taxes rather than see its services cut, and a plurality of 45 percent prefer military cuts instead.

Obama, like Carter, is reacting to warning signs by seeking to split the difference between dispirited Democrats and increasingly radicalized Republicans.

So what does Obama propose? Well nothing so simple as his own party’s highly popular political platform for this president. He’s too smart for that. Rather, as Ezra Klein points out,, Obama’s deficit reduction plan, while not quite as brutal as the Republican Ryan plan, is even more conservative than the Simpson-Bowles plan, which was itself deeply conservative. He calls for raising less money in new taxes and far smaller cuts in the defense budget, chasing the Republicans into territory that is well to the right of anything even Ronald Reagan dared propose before his 1980 shellacking of Jimmy Carter.

Carter, as it happens, took much the same path. Turning his back on O’Neill, his party and its primary constituencies, he accepted the Republican argument that the only way to solve the country’s economic problems was to attack the deficit. He would later explain to a group of political scientists after leaving the presidency, "A lot of my advisers, including Rosalyn, used to argue with me about my decision to move ahead with a project when it was obviously not going to be politically advantageous, or to encourage me to postpone it until a possible second term and so forth. It was just contrary to my nature...I just couldn't do it. Once I made a decision I was awfully stubborn about it.”

Sound like any presidents you know?

Eric Alterman is a Distinguished Professor of English and journalism at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism, a senior fellow of the Center for American Progress and media columnist for The Nation. His most recent book is Kabuki Democracy: The System vs. Barack Obama.