Comparing leaders is old hat, but if the cap fits. . .
A LIVING ghost stalks American politics. At the age of 86, Jimmy Carter is more prolific than ever. His just-published 'White House Diary' covers bookstore shelves, among its main selling points the claim that Ted Kennedy -- yes, the same Ted of universal coverage, who died last summer -- deliberately blocked Carter's health reform plan in 1978.
Carter's single-term presidency may have perished three decades ago, a brief and unfondly remembered Democratic parenthesis in a Republican era. But its unhappy shade haunts the campaign for November's mid-term elections in the US.
Barely a month before the vote, which could produce an outpouring of voter frustration and anger unmatched in a generation, the Carter administration has become the parallel of choice for the increasingly troubled rule of Barack Obama.
The White House itself, of course, is not on the line on November 2, but Obama's prestige and authority will be.
Mr Obama's Democrats are widely expected to lose the House of Representatives, and they may become a minority in the Senate too.
The comparisons are a measure of Obama's fall from grace. Two years ago, his election was hailed as a second coming of John F Kennedy, even of FDR. Now the name most frequently evoked is Carter's.
Since leaving office, Carter has been probably the most prolific and internationally active ex-president ever -- author, peacemaker and troubleshooter, who has deftly turned himself into America's good conscience. But Carter is considered a failure in the White House. To label Obama a second Carter so soon is unfair, but the parallel has plausibility.
Both can point to notable achievements. In office, Carter brokered the Camp David accords, secured ratification of the Panama Canal treaty and created a Department of Energy. While Obama, despite unrelenting opposition, has already pushed through healthcare and regulatory reform, as well as a record stimulus package that may have averted a second Great Depression.
Both, beyond argument, are exceptionally intelligent men, with a rare ability to get to the heart of a problem. But both have seen their rationality -- their ability to see the world not as they would like it to be, but as it is -- attacked as weakness. Somewhat illogically, however, Obama, just as Carter was 30 years ago, has also been accused of surrounding himself with a palace guard of intimates who have cut him off from the real world. Last but not least, both are Nobel Peace Prize winners.
A large part of their respective troubles stem from the excessive expectations Americans invest in their presidents. This is doubly true for presidents like Carter and Obama who come from nowhere.
True, the new man in charge can for a while blame his predecessor -- and Obama did -- pointing to the poisoned chalice of two foreign wars, a crumbling economy and a financial system on life support, passed to him by George W Bush.
Unfortunately the American system demands presidents campaign by making promises as if they have already been realised. Unfortunately, the new and brilliant Obama era has obstinately refused to dawn, and it will be years yet until the 2008 meltdown and its consequences are purged from the system.
Fairly or unfairly, this is now Obama's economy, not Bush's, and on November 2 he will pay the price, in what most experts predict will be the loss by Democrats of the House of Representatives, conceivably of the Senate too, as well as the governerships of several major states like Pennsylvania and Ohio, perhaps even California.
In fact, compared to Obama, Carter had it easy. His 1978 mid-terms came when his approval rating was a relatively comfortable 52pc (Obama's is in the mid-40s and falling). Certainly, the economy was rocky through most of Carter's term, but the recession was mild compared to the one most Americans feel they are still living through, even though statisticians have now determined it ended nearly 18 months ago.
What doomed him were outside events, for which his predecessor Gerald Ford could not be blamed -- the second oil shock of 1979, originating in the Iranian revolution and causing inflation and recession and, above all, the daily humiliation of the Americans taken hostage in Tehran, which dominated his final 14 months.
Carter's vice-president Walter Mondale well remembers how the public turned against their once-imagined saviour. "People think the president is the only one who can fix their problems," Mondale told 'The New Yorker' last month. "When a person loses a job or can't feed his family or can't keep his house, he is no longer rational. They become angry and they strike out -- and that's what we have now. 'If you're president,' they say, 'do something'."
Carter tried to do something, by telling the country the truth, in his so-called "Malaise" address of July 1979, a speech that could sum up the national mood in the autumn of 2010.
The country, he declared, was afflicted by a crisis of confidence "that strikes at the very heart and soul and spirit of our national will". Americans had lost their unity of purpose, "the erosion of our confidence in the future is threatening to destroy the social and the political fabric of America".
"The people are looking for honest answers, not easy answers; clear leadership, not false claims and evasiveness and politics as usual," he said.
But in one crucial sense, Carter had it wrong. A country that had suffered no real hardship since the Depression almost half a century earlier, and believed its presidents were miracle-workers, was indeed looking for easy answers. Americans always want easy answers -- and the politicians are obliging, with the same false claims, evasiveness and politics-as-usual that Carter denounced.
In the US, as the deficit increases and income disparities continue to grow, name-calling passes for serious debate.
Like Carter before him, Obama at least tries to tell the truth -- that the road back will be long, and that the US must change its profligate ways.
But this White House has yet to come up with a serious deficit-reduction plan. As for the Republicans, their new "Pledge to America" is basically warmed-over Bushery, gushing on about tax cuts, but refusing to be specific about the spending cuts to pay for them.
Rarely have the prospects for constructive compromise looked bleaker. In Carter's day, moderates abounded in both parties. Now, in Republican ranks especially, moderates are a vanishing species. Compromise happens in the centre, but the centre is vanishing.
Obama must contend with a ferocious partisanship and bloody-mindedness, visible in the culture of filibusters and permanent warfare on Capitol Hill, and magnified by internet bloggers and talk-show hosts on 24/7 cable news. He faces adversaries who question his patriotism -- even whether he is an American citizen, or a Christian, at all.
Whatever happens, November 2 will probably be brutal for the Democrats. In the midterms of 1978, the party lost 15 seats in the House and three in the Senate -- but it would be a miracle akin to walking on water if Obama's party escaped as lightly now.
But something is missing. On that election night of November 4 2008, amid the euphoria of the victory rally in Chicago's Grant Park, it seemed that Obama could indeed walk on water.
Carter might not have been a great communicator, but Obama most certainly is.
He remains the master explainer. But there is a detached side to him that seems to recoil from the raw emotion that politics sometimes demands. Rarely these days does Obama uplift. Even when he is engaged, he seems oddly disengaged. There are times you half wonder -- does he really even want a second term? And if he didn't, you could hardly blame him. (© Independent News Service)