When Barack Obama speaks to the Democratic Convention tomorrow night, many Democrats will be wondering about a question that has been raised repeatedly during the primaries and at the start of the general campaign: will Senator Barack Obama, if elected president, be another Jimmy Carter?
This has been a criticism leveled against Senator Obama by supporters of Senator Hillary Clinton, as well as by Republican John McCain. The critics argue that Obama will be incompetent as a leader and unable to govern in Washington. McCain told NBC's Brian Williams, "Obama says that I'm running for a Bush's third terms. It seems to me he's running for Jimmy Carter's second."
To be sure, there are striking similarities between the Democratic presidential campaigns of 1976 and 2008. Both candidates ran against the Washington establishment and called for a new style of politics. Both candidates used the caucus system and the media masterfully to outflank party leaders. Both candidates refused to adopt the prevailing arguments of the Democratic Party and tried to weave together positions that ended up creating confusion about their core principles. Both candidates were accused of privileging style over substance. Both candidates lacked a significant amount of experience in Washington.
But these similarities overlook two key differences that suggest a better outcome should Obama be elected. The most important is that Obama and congressional Democrats are relatively united on the major domestic issues. When Carter inhabited the White House, congressional Democrats were deeply divided over economics, energy, health care, urban renewal, and more. The Democratic Party consisted of multiple, well-defined factions: southern Democrats, northern urban liberals, and western suburbanites who didn't see eye to eye on most issues.
Moreover, Carter and congressional Democrats didn't get along personally. Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill later wrote, "Carter rode into town like a knight on a white horse. But while the gentleman leading the charge was capable, too many of the troops he brought with them were amateurs. They didn't know much about Washington, but that didn't prevent them from being arrogant."
Obama faces a better situation. He and the Democratic congressional leaders are relatively united on most domestic issues. As I wrote with Michael Kazin in the Washington Post, Democrats have focused on a series of social policies that address the insecurity that middle class Americans now face, from higher education subsidies to health care reform.
Equally important, as Carter himself would be the first to say, Obama has a good rapport with Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who informally supported his candidacy over Hillary Clinton. Having Senator Joseph Biden in the administration, who is a favorite veteran on Capitol Hill, would only help him in this pursuit.
The second reason that Obama would be in better shape than Carter has to do with the opposition. When Carter became president in 1977, the conservative movement was gaining full steam and starting to take control of the Republican Party. The 1978 midterm elections brought in an aggressive group of young conservatives, such as Georgia's Newt Gingrich, who were unwilling to compromise with Democrats and determined to shake up Capitol Hill. These conservatives had developed an elaborate grass-roots movement as well as a strong organizational network of interest groups, think tanks, and non-profit organizations.
As Carter tackled difficult issues like a SALT II treaty with the Soviet Union, he found that he was outflanked by conservatives who were better prepared organizationally than his administration. They were much more successful at tapping into voter sentiment than was the administration. Carter's defeats were not just a reflection of his weaknesses, but also a result of the strength of his opponents.
Obama does not face this problem either. The Republican Party is badly divided, far more than any tension that the Clinton-Obama rivalry can cause Democrats. As a result of the policies of President George W. Bush, the various factions of the conservative movement have entered into open warfare. Libertarians lament big government conservatism. Fiscal conservatives are at odds with administration's sizable budgets. Neoconservatives are in conflict with foreign policy realists in the GOP, who reject their ambitions for nation-building.
Nor are conservatives really excited about John McCain. They will vote for him, they will stand by him, but they are not enthusiastic about him. In stark contrast, building on Howard Dean's vision, Democrats have been able to construct a powerful national movement, connected from the netroots that fill the blogosphere every day to the grass roots activists who brought out voters in the caucuses, to supporters in the mainstream media. As president of the U.S., Obama would be able to tap into this network as conservatives struggle to regroup.
Finally, there is the role of President Bush. When Jimmy Carter came into office, the country was deeply distrustful of all politicians. Richard Nixon had resigned in 1974, replaced by Gerald Ford who seemed in over his head, and though he may have angered many by his pardon of Nixon, he was not nearly as polarizing a figure as Bush. Democrats were still reeling over divisions of the 1960s and they had not developed a clear sense of their party's core beliefs.
Today, Bush has provided Democrats with a potent rallying cry. As Paul Begala recently wrote in the Huffington Post, "No matter what minor difference Hillary and Barack had, they pale in comparison to the corruption, incompetence, dishonesty and criminality of the Bush-McCain Republicans."
The deep resentment and distrust of President Bush will offer Democrats a certain amount of momentum in 2009 and 2010 to work together and define their party.
Neither of these differences guarantees that a President Obama would not be another President Carter, but they should give Democrats some hope. Politicians with similar styles or messages can encounter very different outcomes at different moments in time.
Julian E. Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School. He is the co-editor of "Rightward Bound: Making America Conservative in the 1970s" (Harvard University Press). He is writing a book on the history of national security politics since World War II and another book about the presidency of Jimmy Carter.
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