“Sen. Obama says that I’m running for Bush’s third term,” John McCain quipped in June 2008. “It seems to me he’s running for Jimmy Carter’s second.” Less than three years later, Sen. McCain’s bleak forecast is coming true.
Let’s start with how Americans felt about America under President Carter and how they feel about America under President Obama.
Today, as in the late 1970s, there is a pervasive sense of decline. Obama has even mentioned it in a State of the Union and in his inaugural address.
This sense of decline is a function of many factors: China’s rapid rise, Washington’s self-imposed constraint overseas but especially America’s faltering economy.
Unemployment has remained stubbornly above 9 percent throughout the Obama presidency. Some 15 percent of homeowners are either facing foreclosure or at least a month behind on their mortgage. Inflation is creeping up. And the Misery Index is back.
It was invented during the Carter administration as a way to gauge how bad things are for the American people. In simplest terms, it’s the unemployment rate plus the inflation rate. The Misery Index was 19.72 at the end of Carter’s term, up seven points from four years earlier. Under Obama, it’s 10.63, up three points from when he entered office. (By the way, the Misery Index went down under George W. Bush.)
The bad news for American consumers—and for Obama’s 2012 prospects—is that if energy prices continue to rise, the economy will not be able to create new jobs, which means the Misery Index will live up to its name.
Today, as in the 1970s, gas prices are exploding, spurred by rising demand in developing economies and volatile supply lines in the Middle East. Oil has rocketed past $100 per barrel, translating into $3.36-per-gallon gas, up from $2.70 per gallon this time last year (national averages). That’s a 25-percent rise.
Inflationdata.com points out that between 1976 and 1980 gas prices increased by about 65 percent. According to one energy expert, “It would not be inconceivable to see $150- or $200-barrel oil this year.” In other words, it seems gas prices are headed in the same direction as in the late 1970s.
Obama’s solution is restraint and constraint. “We can’t drive our SUVs and…keep our homes on 72 degrees at all times,” he lectured us in 2008, before pushing a cap-and-trade scheme to tax and thus ration energy.
That’s straight out of Carter’s playbook: turn down the thermostat, wear sweaters, install solar panels, etc.
Even when Obama tried to go against his own tendencies and promote a modest opening of “new offshore areas for oil and gas,” events in the Gulf of Mexico intervened to stymie him. It was almost as if the ghost of Carter was haunting him. Recall that Carter promoted nuclear energy, describing the benefits of nuclear power as “very real and practical,” until Three Mile Island intervened.
Finally, we come to foreign policy. To be sure, there are subtle differences between Carter and Obama: Carter championed human rights, while Obama, from Iran and China in 2009 to Egypt and Libya in 2011, has embraced a kind of agnosticism on human rights and democracy. But both men seem to view the world through the prism of moral relativism. For Carter, that meant explaining away the behavior of America’s enemies and condemning the behavior of America’s allies; for Obama, it means lacing his speeches with qualifiers about America’s problems and flaws, while refusing to use the bully pulpit to promote freedom.
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