The "Carterization" of Barack Obama (Part V of a Series)

08/17/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

This past Monday was the 30th anniversary of Jimmy Carter's malaise speech. It was this speech in which he -- modestly, but unwisely, as it turned out -- itemized a long list of complaints about his presidency from Americans of all walks of life, who had been invited to Camp David to meet with the President precisely for that purpose. Choosing not to take their criticisms personally, Carter identified instead a general malaise which he described as "a fundamental threat to American democracy ... a crisis of confidence. It is a crisis that strikes at the very heart and soul and spirit of our national will. We can see this crisis in the growing doubt about the meaning of our own lives and in the loss of a unity and purpose for our nation. The erosion of our confidence in the future is threatening to destroy the social and political fabric of America."


I was reminded that this is a good time to recall those remarks by a visit this week to the studio of the Altadena-based artist Lynne McDaniel, where I was drawn immediately to a striking double portrait of Carter and Barack Obama reproduced above. McDaniel titles it "Through Their Eyes." Presciently, it was done long before Obama's presidential campaign and election, and shortly after the famous speech he gave at the 2004 Democratic convention -- the one that turned the nation's head in this young man's direction. McDaniel used photographic images for her picture, and a part of the reason it's so striking is that she made one significant change: Jimmy Carter has Obama's penetrating dark brown eyes, while Obama has been gifted with Carter's blue ones. Hence, of course, the title.

I think it's an extraordinary and challenging piece of work -- and not only because the painting itself is so terrific. It is. McDaniel has done an excellent job with the likeness, and the quality of her line and brush-work need no comment from me. Much more than that, however, I find the painting rich in both profound and provocative associations -- which is the reason that I felt the need to share it. It deserves a wider audience than the one it has thus far received, hanging quietly on the artist's studio wall. (Please feel free to forward the image, with or without this post.)

Let's talk about those profound associations first -- the notion of two men from astonishingly different backgrounds who came to share the same destiny as the world's most powerful leader. The painting is a study of that power from two points of view--its devastating after-effects on the face of the older man, and its emanation in the form of hope and promise on the younger. It's a study, also, that tells us much about the psychology of the men themselves, and about the aging process; we read much in this simple juxtaposition of images about the physical effects of age on the human face, and the different kind of energy projected by two men at different stages of their life. It's also, profoundly, a study of black and white American relations, and the inexorable process of historical change. The picture confronts us, unambiguously, with a reality that has changed radically -- for the better, let's be sure to add -- in the past 40 years. McDaniel's painting seems to assert with calm assurance that black and white are, quite simply and inarguably, equal.

Provocatively, though, the painting also raises the frightening specter of the "Carterization" of Obama. I recall, as perhaps you do too, the hopes that we liberals and progressives pinned on Jimmy Carter when we elected him in 1977, after the bitter taste of the Nixon years and the interregnum of Gerald Ford. We wanted radical change, we wanted a more transparent and responsive government, we wanted an end to war and partisan strife, we wanted principled compassion and justice to prevail over heartless, self-first greed and power mongering, and we projected the responsibility for all these needs onto this one, all-too fragile figurehead who could never have hoped to match them.

When he failed to meet up with our expectations and projections, we began to think of Carter as weak and ineffectual -- and projected those qualities, in turn, on the man in whom we had vested so much power. The eventual failure of his administration was, to my way of thinking, as much ours as his. The American electorate began looking to Ronald Reagan for the daddy figure we seemed to need to take care of us, and to compare Carter's image unfavorably with the skilled performance of that screen actor, whose illusion of strength we were eagerly taken in by. (I say "We..." Not me, of course! It's never ME. Is it?) Sure, Jimmy Carter had his failings. He was, in reality, far from the perfect model of strength and manly authority we longed for. So we settled for the illusion instead.

It's my fear that we could easily end up doing the same with Barack Obama. When I wrote the original essay in this series, "When Do We All Grow Up?" it was this fear I had in mind. Once more we have a President who is far from perfect and far from all-powerful. He needs the help and support of millions of others if he's to achieve those things he promised us to strive for. Once more we are beginning to perceive -- and name -- the man's weaknesses, and our points of disagreement. And once more we risk creating the reality we project on him. Government, as I've tried to say, is a contract, depending as much on a willingness to be governed as to govern. I've tried to say that, certainly, yes, it's our job to criticize and hold our man's feet to the fire. We must do so, though, with a clear understanding of the risks involved in each of us promoting the achievement of our own particular goals at the cost of the substantive change we need -- a change that can only be arrived at through deliberate means. It's a big ocean liner we're all sailing on, to use that old cliche; it won't be turned around with a quick or easy spin of the wheel.

Let me be absolutely clear: Obama is not Jimmy Carter. I happen to think he's made of tougher, less relenting steel. I don't see him offering a "malaise speech," like Carter's exercise in self-deprecation, in order to mitigate his falling poll numbers. I'm not worried about Obama; I'm worried about US. And in this context, the juxtaposition Lynne McDaniel offers us in her painting is striking, yes, and poignant -- and more than a little worrisome.