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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

    Obama should seek to emulate Carter

    Sometimes, a cardigan sweater says it all.

    Michelle Obama aroused the wrath of fashion experts when she donned the dreaded garment to meet Queen Elizabeth II, rather than a flashy designer dress. “”You don’t go to Buckingham Palace in a sweater,”” snorted designer Oscar de la Renta.

    While de la Renta’s scorn was more likely based on snobbishness than concern about the Obamas’ reputation, followers of presidential politics probably cringed a little to see Michelle’s sweater. To them, that sweater summons up visions of President Jimmy Carter, and to them, that spells disaster.

    For all the kind words pundits might have for Carter’s good deeds since 1980, they generally use his presidency as shorthand for “”incompetence.”” Since most younger voters have no memory of Carter, and a lot of older voters associate his administration solely with the economic crisis of the 1970s and the Iranian hostage crisis, they’re not often contradicted.

    Yet President Barack Obama shouldn’t necessarily shy away from the Carter comparison. Maybe it’s time to take a second look at the most reviled president since Watergate.

    As many observers have noted, there are a number of intriguing parallels between Obama and that other idealistic Democratic President. Carter, like Obama, was elected immediately following an era of war and political corruption. Like Obama, he was a Washington outsider who promised to change the tone of national politics. And like Obama, he found himself dealing with an economic crisis and pressing environmental issues.

    Carter’s presidency began very promisingly. Rejecting the imagery of the “”imperial presidency,”” he walked to his inauguration, turned the lights off around Washington monuments and sold off the executive yacht. And he donned his famous, much-ridiculed sweater for a good reason: He was turning down the White House thermostat to save energy.

    For a few months, the old, humble ideal of the president as a servant of the people – the ideal best personified by Thomas Jefferson – seemed to have returned.

    But Carter’s presidency sank into disaster. He didn’t get along with Congress, and most of his bills grounded to a halt, meaning that he was helpless to do much about the growing energy crisis. The media heckled him as an incompetent rube. Then he was pummeled by one foreign calamity after another: the Iranian revolution, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the hostage crisis.

    As we all know, Carter lost his bid for re-election. Most of us prefer to talk about success rather than failure, so most of us regard Carter as something of a failed president.

    But it’s not at all clear that we should think that way. Even if most of his initiatives failed to pass Congress, Carter took environmentalism more seriously than any president before or since. He even stuck solar panels on the side of the White House.

    Unlike virtually every other president since 1945, Carter was not a reckless interventionist. His most significant foreign excursion, in fact, was one of our few undeniably justified interventions: an attempt to rescue American hostages from Iran. The attempt failed, but Carter persisted, finally freeing the hostages through diplomacy on his last day in office – though he was denied credit for this success, since the media subsequently spread the ludicrous story that Iran had been intimidated by Ronald Reagan, who hadn’t even finished taking the oath of office when the hostages were freed.

    Carter was ridiculed as a weakling, but his foreign policy accomplishments seem considerably more impressive these days. In 1978, he secured peace between Israel and Egypt -ÿarguably the most notable success any American has ever achieved in the Middle East. And he did it without firing a shot.

    None of this has won Carter much praise from most leftists, who condemn him for not being the reincarnation of Franklin Roosevelt. Democrats regard Carter as something of an embarrassment and rarely talk about him. Conservatives, who ought to admire his restraint, instead regard him as the ultimate liberal: a sissy in a sweater who didn’t bomb anyone.

    But compare Carter’s record to Bill Clinton’s. While Clinton did not drag the United States into any wars, he was a Wilsonian interventionist who interfered in Somalia and Kosovo and repeatedly bombed Iraq. He also passed a 1996 “”anti-terrorism”” act that trashed habeas corpus rights and a so-called “”Communications Decency Act”” that trampled First Amendment rights. Compared to that, I’ll take nothing.

    Carter’s determination to adhere to the principles of the founders -ÿand to their vision of a humble presidency ð-ÿearned him nothing but scorn from the warmongers and neoconservatives of his era. Their scorn has trickled down through the years, long disguising what ought to be obvious: that Carter was the best president since World War II. That hve is hated by the warmongers and neoconservatives of our era ought to be a badge of honor – at least for anyone who cares about democracy and Constitutional government.

    And President Obama ought to wear that badge the way his wife wore that sweater – with pride.

    Justyn Dillingham is the editor in chief of the Daily Wildcat. He can be reached at letters@wildcat.arizona.edu.

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