The Obama Watch

President Barack Carter

The myth of the incumbent President: a look back at the Reagan/Carter race.

By 4.26.12

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A combination of Ebenezer Scrooge and the mad bomber.

This was Ronald Reagan's joking description of how President Jimmy Carter's campaign sought to portray Reagan as the fall campaign of 1980 finally got underway.

And make book on it.

Some version of this old liberal game will be run on Mitt Romney by Barack Obama, starting now. The only difference, perhaps, is that Richie Rich may serve as the substitute for Ebenezer Scrooge.

Don't believe me?

Let's begin with a video tour comparing the President Jimmy Carter of 1980 with the President Barack Obama of 2008 and today. It's as if Obama were just pumping fresh stale air into Carter's old lines about Ronald Reagan. Take note: the villains -- big oil, tax breaks for the rich, heartless Republicans -- are always the same. And as Americans have learned the hard way, the results that flow from the Carter and Obama policies have been the same as well.

• Here's Carter giving his 1980 acceptance speech. He is describing what a Reagan presidency would bring. (Note: included here are both the text and video versions, the latter with time notations when needed.)

Carter, at 14:51 in his speech, says:

I see despair -- despair of millions who would struggle for equal opportunity and a better life and struggle alone. And I see surrender -- the surrender of our energy future to the merchants of oil, the surrender of our economic future to a bizarre program of massive tax cuts for the rich, service cuts for the poor, and massive inflation for everyone.

• Here's Obama giving his 2008 acceptance speech. He is describing what a John McCain presidency would bring. Note the same attacks on oil companies and tax breaks.

Obama (at 12: 56 in his speech), says:

Now, I don't believe that Senator McCain doesn't care what's going on in the lives of Americans. I just think he doesn't know. Why else would he define middle-class as someone making under five million dollars a year? How else could he propose hundreds of billions in tax breaks for big corporations and oil companies but not one penny of tax relief to more than one hundred million Americans? How else could he offer a health care plan that would actually tax people's benefits, or an education plan that would do nothing to help families pay for college, or a plan that would privatize Social Security and gamble your retirement?

• Here's Carter on energy and oil companies, lashing out at Reagan.

Carter (at 30:49 in his speech):

Then, as now, their policy was dictated by the big oil companies.

We Democrats fought hard to rally our Nation behind a comprehensive energy policy and a good program, a new foundation for challenging and exciting progress. Now, after 3 years of struggle, we have that program. The battle to secure America's energy future has been fully and finally joined. Americans have cooperated with dramatic results. We've reversed decades of dangerous and growing dependence on foreign oil. We are now importing 20 percent less oil -- that is 1 1/2 million barrels of oil every day less than the day I took office.

And with our new energy policy now in place, we can discover more, produce more, create more, and conserve more energy, and we will use American resources, American technology, and millions of American workers to do it with.

Now, what do the Republicans propose? Basically, their energy program has two parts. The first part is to get rid of almost everything that we've done for the American public in the last 3 years. They want to reduce or abolish the synthetic fuels program. They want to slash the solar energy incentives, the conservation programs, aid to mass transit, aid to elderly Americans to help pay their fuel bills. They want to eliminate the 55-mile speed limit. And while they are at it, the Republicans would like to gut the Clean Air Act. They never liked it to begin with.

That's one part of their program; the other part is worse. To replace what we have built, this is what they propose: to destroy the windfall profits tax and to "unleash" the oil companies and let them solve the energy problem for us. That's it. That is it. That's their whole program. There is no more. Can this Nation accept such an outrageous program?

• Here's Obama in a campaign commercial on energy: 

An announcer's voice goes after oil companies while the screen reads: Obama: 'End tax breaks for big oil.' Then President Carter …ahhh….President Obama appears to say:

It is time to stop a taxpayer giveaway and start making investments in a clean energy industry.

• Here Carter boasts that his policies (which at the time had produced almost 8% unemployment, double-digit inflation and interest rates) had -- really -- created "8 million" jobs.

Carter (at 34:52 in his speech):

We've reversed the decline in the basic research and development, and we have created more than 8 million new jobs—the biggest increase in the history of our country.

• Here's Obama boasting in 2008 about how jobs are created:

Obama at 15:08 in his speech says:

We measure progress by how many people can find a job that pays the mortgage; whether you can put a little extra money away at the end of each month so you can someday watch your child receive her college diploma. We measure progress in the 23 million new jobs that were created when Bill Clinton was President -- when the average American family saw its income go up $7,500 instead of down $2,000 like it has under George Bush.

• Here's Carter attacking Reagan's proposed tax cuts:

Carter at 39:04 says:

The Republican alternative is the biggest tax giveaway in history. They call it Reagan-Kemp-Roth; I call it a free lunch that Americans cannot afford. The Republican tax program offers rebates to the rich, deprivation for the poor, and fierce inflation for all of us.

• Here's Obama doing his version of the same attack.

Obama in this clip from a speech at Osawatomie, Kansas:

Now, just as there was in Teddy Roosevelt's time, there is a certain crowd in Washington who, for the last few decades, have said, let's respond to this economic challenge with the same old tune. "The market will take care of everything," they tell us. If we just cut more regulations and cut more taxes -- especially for the wealthy -- our economy will grow stronger…..

Now, it's a simple theory. And we have to admit, it's one that speaks to our rugged individualism and our healthy skepticism of too much government. That's in America's DNA. And that theory fits well on a bumper sticker. But here's the problem: It doesn't work. It has never worked.

One could go on here about the tie between the Carter and Obama policies and rhetoric.

And on and on and on. As we once noted in this space (May 13, 2008, to be exact) what Obama was proposing in 2008 was Jimmy Carter's second term.

Now, it's here. The unemployment, the high gas prices, the class warfare, the attacks on "big oil" -- all of it has returned with a vengeance. 

As the final campaign season begins to come into view featuring a showdown between Governor Romney and President Obama, it's worth this look back at the 1980 race precisely because it became a classic showdown between left and right. With Obama now trying to run exactly the same Carteresque playbook.

Can Romney easily defeat a President Obama just as Reagan defeated a President Carter?

Of course he can. And a look back at 1980 can also tell us that for all the bravado the Carter White House was dishing out, inside they were acutely aware they were in serious danger of losing in a landslide.

No less than Carter White House Chief of Staff and 1976 campaign manager Hamilton Jordan had sat down in January of 1979 and put together a then-top secret memo (hat tip to the late Theodore H. White) for Carter titled: 

EYES ONLY: To President Carter. From: Hamilton Jordan
Subject: The Myth of the Incumbent President.

Covering the possibility of everything from a re-nomination challenge (which did eventually appear in the form of Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy) to the final campaign against the as-yet still unknown 1980 GOP nominee, Jordan was blunt.

Over the two-hundred-year history of our country, the myth developed and was sustained by events that incumbent Presidents are always re-elected.

This, said Jordan -- correctly -- was no longer true. In particular, in terms of a fall re-election campaign television and the performance of the President were now considerable concerns.

Citing the difference between the 1976 campaign when Carter was an ex-Georgia Governor running a guerilla campaign against first the Democrat Establishment and finally the GOP Establishment, by 1980 Carter was the sitting president. Now he commanded a veritable political army filled with professionals. And as the incumbent president, Jordan said, President Jimmy Carter faced a very central, very serious problem that ex-Governor Carter did not have. The problem for Carter and his team?

We will be re-elected or not re-elected based largely on your performance as President.

To understand what was really meant by Jordan when he used the phrase "performance as President" he wasn't simply talking about the obvious: the economy or foreign policy. No, what was very much included in the term "performance" was the 1980 version of that old saying famously attributed to FDR's longtime aide and strategist Harry Hopkins:

We will tax and tax, spend and spend, elect and elect.

Carter and his liberal administration were, in 1980, the lineal descendants of FDR and his staff. They knew exactly what Harry Hopkins meant, and they went about the "spend and spend" part of their task with a vengeance, using every taxpayer dime available to curry favor for Jimmy Carter's performance. Here are but a few examples:

• September, 1979 -- $1.1 billion in loan guarantees to an electric cooperative in the key state of Florida

• September, 1979 -- $19.9 billion to Dade County (Miami) for public housing

• September, 1979 -- $6 million to Tampa for public housing

• September, 1979 -- $4 million each for public housing in Polk, Orange and Hillsborough Counties.

All of this on top of $31 million for elderly housing projects throughout Florida, a grant for hurricane aid, another grant for Miami tourism. And so on, and on.

All for one purpose: carrying the state of Florida if there were a nomination challenge, and carrying the state in the fall election against whoever was the GOP nominee.

And so it went as hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars surged into places like the primary states of New Hampshire and Massachusetts (to keep Kennedy off-base on his home turf). There was money -- $2 billion! -- targeted for "disadvantaged youth" (read: the black community); a cut in price supports was abandoned to please Wisconsin dairy farmers; for the key state of New York it rained hospital support in Brooklyn, an Urban Development Grant for a new building for the American Stock Exchange in Manhattan. Harlem's Congressman Charlie Rangel got a promise to build a new World Trade Center in Harlem.

If you were a Democrat and decided to go with Teddy? Chicago's Mayor Jane Byrne learned the hard way. The Carter Secretary of Transportation suddenly announced that the Carter Administration had lost "confidence" in the Mayor -- and federal funds already scheduled to expand O'Hare airport would have to go elsewhere.

This was hardball. It worked against Ted Kennedy, who on the day of his announcement of candidacy was presumed to be in a position to not only clean Carter's clock but trounce any GOP nominee as well. By August of 1980, an embittered Kennedy appeared as the loser on the podium of the Democrats' national convention.

With Kennedy vanquished, nomination in hand, Carter's sights turned to the new GOP nominee -- Ronald Reagan.

Added now to the gushing hydrant of federal tax dollars was the cannon of harsh liberal rhetoric that we have noted above. 

Read this one Carter quote again about what would become known in the Reagan era as Reaganomics:

 …a bizarre program of massive tax cuts for the rich…the risk of international confrontation…the merchants of oil….those with him who have now captured control of the Republican Party…

The Reagan era produced 21 million jobs. And when one adds in the essentially unchanged policies that were kept in place by the two Bush presidencies and -- yes, the 23 million jobs in the Clinton era that Obama cited without mentioning they were a direct result of Reaganomics -- the total comes close to some 50 million jobs.

Now, with Carternomics back in play, this time as Obamanomics, the Obama campaign needs distractions and distortions (dogs, Ann Romney, etc., etc.) because the Obama economic program has produced no jobs and $5 trillion in debt. With some of that debt -- the "stimulus" being used precisely as Jimmy Carter was using tax payer dollars in 1980 -- handing it out to political allies. 

Notice as well how Carter loved to say that Reagan and conservatives had somehow "captured" the GOP -- as if, gosh, there really were nice responsible Republicans it's just that they had been captured and forced to propose these bizarre policies by all those mean conservatives of 1980.

That was Carter then. This is Obama now in an interview with Rolling Stone:

But what's happened, I think, in the Republican caucus in Congress, and what clearly happened with respect to Republican candidates, was a shift to an agenda that is far out of the mainstream -- and, in fact, is contrary to a lot of Republican precepts.

[…]

Frankly, I know that there are good, decent Republicans on Capitol Hill who, in a different environment, would welcome the capacity to work with me. But right now, in an atmosphere in which folks like Rush Limbaugh and Grover Norquist are defining what it means to be a true conservative, they are lying low..

Then and now, Republicans are really reasonable people -- "good, decent" (Obama) but they have, alas, had their party "captured" (Carter) by those like "Rush Limbaugh and Grover Norquist" (Obama) who have "alarming" (Carter) designs on America.

So the Carter-Reagan race began.

It was not a picnic.

Reagan was attacked as a racist, a lightweight, cruel, stupid, dangerous and a warmonger.

Reagan responded by sticking to his conservative message, reduced to two simple points: Carter's handling of the economy and peace through strength.

He didn't just beat an incumbent president.

Ronald Reagan challenged the entire foundation of liberalism, effectively asking voters to repudiate not just Carter but liberalism itself. He made the 1980 election what might be called: A Repudiation Election.

Reagan trounced Jimmy Carter in a 44 state landslide. Oh… and by the way? All that taxpayer money sent to Florida didn't help Carter. Reagan carried Florida. Not to mention New Hampshire, New York, Wisconsin -- and yes -- Massachusetts too.

Four years later, after doing the opposite of what Carter suggested, Reagan had a roaring economy, the Soviets were starting to crumble -- and Reagan carried 49 states in one of the greatest landslides in American history.

Can incumbent President Barack Obama be beaten -- and handily?

Yes, he can.

Why?

Because the last four years really have been Jimmy Carter's second term.

All you have to do is go the tape. 

 

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About the Author
Jeffrey Lord is a former Reagan White House political director and author. He writes from Pennsylvania at jlpa1@aol.com.