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Is President Obama's Carter moment nearing?

By David S. Broder
Thursday, June 3, 2010; A17

"This is the worst," a Democratic friend exclaimed over the phone on Tuesday, the first day back at work after the Memorial Day weekend. I knew without asking what he meant -- the oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico that dominated television coverage and was into its second month with no quick solution in sight.

No, I told him. It's not yet the worst.

They haven't built a popular new television program around it -- yet. No one has created a new media franchise for himself out of it. There isn't a name for it that has become part of popular culture.

I was thinking back to when another Democratic president, Jimmy Carter, found himself stymied in another seemingly endless ordeal. Iranian militants stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in 1979 and held 52 officials and workers hostage for 444 days, while the United States was helpless to free them.

Many of us recall the event by the name that became attached to it: "America Held Hostage." That was the title ABC News slapped on its half-hour news update that aired each night, with Ted Koppel as anchor. The show later became the long-running program "Nightline."

This is when you know you are truly harpooned, when your problem has become someone else's meal ticket.

As sinister as the jet stream of escaping oil and gas looks via the underwater camera in the gulf, Barack Obama has not yet moved into the category of the late-night patsy that Jimmy Carter became. The Iranians were more clever, or diabolical, in exploiting their hostages than the restrained BP executives or their enviro foes are in this situation.

Obama keeps popping up in new settings, sounding as if he is in command, and he has refused to be confined to the White House as Carter was by the hostage crisis. His good-guy Coast Guard retired admiral has not melted under the pressure, and the BP execs we've seen on TV refuse to play cartoon capitalists, instead conveying the sense that they grieve over the accident.

As a result, this saga, painful as it is, has not yet become the simple demonstration of monumental futility and incompetence that the hostage crisis became for Carter, who let his personal frustration become the nation's humiliation. When he finally mounted a rescue effort, and the helicopters crashed into each other in the desert before reaching the hostages, it was the final proof that he was cursed in anything he tried to do.

That truly was the worst. Today we're not there -- yet.

But we have seen this movie before, and we know how it ends politically. Somebody else shows up and says he can fix this. Or end it. Or make it come out right.

This is why Democrats are right to be very nervous as this gulf incident drags on in its second month. We have endured about as much technical explanation of the rigors of deep-sea drilling as we can stand.

The chart talks demonstrating that we had figured out where the hostages were being held didn't do Carter a lick of good when voters were aching to see the captives walk into their families' arms.

Nothing is going to help Obama unless and until the engineers come up with a method for shutting down this gusher of pollution. He clearly couldn't prevent it, and he was slow in signaling its severity. But he owns it now, and until it is over, the man who aspired to be the next John Kennedy or maybe Franklin Roosevelt will have to hope he doesn't end up as Jimmy Carter.

davidbroder@washpost.com

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