"I wish he'd make up his damned mind," Vernon Jordan said of Jimmy Carter in the speech he gave before he was shot in Fort Wayne last week. But Carter, on visiting the wounded civil rights leader, said: "Vernon has sometimes been a very severe critic of the government."
That well-nigh weird insensitivity to connections -- that inability to see a tie between the government and himself and between what happens and his leadership -- goes to the heart of the Carter presidency. It explains why, even as he assures his renomination, with a good chance of reelection, the president is losing the substance of power -- the power to make policy.
Carter appeals to the electorate by identification with popular, and often opposite, themes. He favors jobs and the balanced budget. He supports solar power and energy conservation and inveighs against the oil companies and their dirty profits. He wants a strong America standing up for peace and human rights, but opposes foreign adventures and wasteful military spending.
Edward Kennedy proved to be no match for that combination. The senator has been made to look like a wild spender and a big-government freak who cannot be trusted with the country's foreign interests at a time of delicate crisis. Hence his rout in the primaries.
Ronald Reagan is about to get a dose of the same treatment. Already the Carterites are painting him as a doctrinaire, right-wing ideologue, itching to press the button that starts the nukes flying and insensitive to the needs of ordinary people for economic security. Unless John Anderson queers the pitch, Jimmy Carter has a strong chance to take Reagan.
But precisely because he wants to have both sides of all issues, Carter has been unwilling to come down hard at the joint -- "to make up his damned mind" -- in ways that define policy. He has shrunk from applying the kind of military force that alone can ensure peace and block Soviet adventurism.
He has refused to sit on wages and prices in ways that are required if jobs are to be maintained and inflation held in check. He has been loath to allow the price decontrol required to stimulate gasoline conservation and set in motion a big push toward new energy sources. As a result, power has slipped away to the hands of others more prepared to tackle the issues squarely.
Economic policy is now dominated by Chairman Paul Volcker of the Federal Reserve Board. The Fed administered, in the form of staggeringly high interest rates, the nasty medicine that stopped the inflationary fever. Now the Fed is viewed by investors and foreign governments as the guarantee of sound economic policy in this country.
Until Volcker flashes a green light, there can be no serious move toward a stimulative policy to reverse the current recession. For if Volcker expresses any reservations, speculators will start a run on the dollar, setting in motion a train of events that will abort economic stimulus.
Energy policy is now controlled by Congress. Congress built the majority for the synthetic fuel program and Energy Mobilization Board that Carter accepted last July. Congress forced him to begin filling the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. Congress is setting the terms by which utilities will be encouraged to switch from oil to other fuels in generating electricity.
Congress has blocked the president's proposal for a fee on imported crude oil, and seems set to take away even the authority to impose the fee. In the end, Carter will probably be obliged b y Congress to do the one thing he has always tried to avoid -- accelerated decontrol of oil prices and the gasoline distribution system.
Foreign policy, since the resignation of Cyrus Vance, has been up for grabs. But if he knows his mind, and takes in hand the State Department bureaucracy, Secretary of State Edmund Muskie can clearly have his way in all but the most sensitive political matters. For the last thing Carter can afford is another resignation by one of the few persons in his administration of high repute and broad following.
Under normal circumstances, this sharing out of power might not be so bad. Before Carter, the presidency had become the focus of hopes so overblown as to make the job impossible. A lowering of expectations and a diffusion of authority are steps toward a sounder polity.
But Carter has added another element, an element of deception. Though he has in fact abandoned government in the interest of seeking office, he gives the impression that all is well, that affairs are in order and adverse tides are being turned. In fact, the country faces acute problems to which it has no solution, and Carter's contribution is to lead us blindly toward the abyss.