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Obama's Carter problem

By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, October 12, 2010; A17

Almost like an apparition, Jimmy Carter stalks Barack Obama. The former president has published yet another book, his 25th, which has been greeted with some scorn and plenty of ridicule. Garry Wills, in the reliably liberal New York Review of Books, writes that "Carter is a better man than his worst enemy would portray him as. And his worst enemy, it turns out is himself." To which a chorus of critics would quickly add, "Not as long as I'm around."

Those critics are having a very good time with Carter's latest book, "White House Diary." It turns out that Carter was an indefatigable diarist, recording everything for whatever reason -- his high self-regard, above all. He is peripatetic Jimmy, his fingers into everything, down to programming the music for the White House sound system. The book becomes "an indictment of the man's pettiness," Wills says, and once again a chorus of other reviewers chimes in with a hearty "amen."

You may wonder at this point why, above, I placed Obama in the same paragraph with Carter. It is not because Obama is as politically challenged as was Carter, and it certainly is not because I think both presidents pursued dumb policies. On the contrary, from health care to the stimulus, and including the Bush-initiated Troubled Assets Relief Program, Obama has done the right things. He staved off both a collapse of the financial system and a deepening of the Great Recession while, paradoxically, being lambasted for doing so. As Carter himself once said, life is unfair.

Jimmy Carter was an odd duck as president and exceedingly hard to like. (I never managed the feat.) Still, on what was and remains the single biggest challenge facing this country, the energy crisis, Carter was right and bravely so. He laid out his ideas in a much-reviled Oval Office speech while at other times wearing a sweater to suggest turning down the heat. In his speech, he used the phrase "the moral equivalent of war" to characterize the energy challenge. Americans would have to make sacrifices. The crisis demanded it and the government would insist on it. Break out the sweaters.

Carter called for home insulation, an increase in coal production, a decrease in the importation of foreign oil and, significantly, a reduction by 10 percent in gasoline consumption. He predicted that America would be running out of crude oil and said that the "cornerstone" of his policy was conservation. "Those citizens who insist on driving large, unnecessarily powerful cars must expect to pay more for that luxury," he said.

Carter exhorted Americans to increase their use of solar energy. He put our money where his mouth was and installed solar panels on the White House roof. Ronald Reagan removed them in 1986.

Reagan had his virtues, but coming to grips with energy reality was not one of them. In contrast to Carter's scolding approach to energy policy, Reagan simply declared it was morning again in America (his 1984 reelection campaign slogan) -- and left it at that. The wonders of the free enterprise system would provide. God would provide. It was a very Third World approach to a First World problem.

Since that time, the "What, Me Worry?" approach to public policy has come to dominate the GOP. We see it today. Its remedy for all that ails us is to cut the size of government -- details to come later -- and, of course, reduce taxes. This, in a sense, is Reagan's legacy, although Reagan might not now go along. He was alive to ideas (an early National Review subscriber) while the current Republican Party is intellectually dormant, its neurons firing the occasional blast of Tea Party anger and then waiting for divine intervention.

Carter's energy program was right on the money. The message was fine; the messenger was awful. This is exactly the case with Obama, who is far more likable than Carter, yet is being cuffed around in a similar manner. Being right is nice. Convincing others you are is essential. Yet even George W. Bush, who left a grateful nation with two wars and a recession -- somehow he forgot the mumps -- hypothetically runs neck and neck with Obama. This is because Obama's insistence on realism comes across as pessimism. This is our national character flaw, and it is what did in Carter: Ask us for sacrifice, and we'll show you the door.

cohenr@washpost.com

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