2012 isn’t 1980, Either

Comparing Obama to Carter on foreign policy (especially in terms of electoral politics) doesn't make sense.

Let me start with a rather obvious disclaimer, but one that probably needs to be made from time to time (and to paraphrase George Will):  the future is just exactly the same as the past up and until the point that it isn’t.  As such, using the past to predict the future is a tenuous exercise at best, especially when we are looking at specific events rather than patterns.

Having said that, people like to draw analogies between one election cycle and another, usually because the person making the analogy likes some aspect of that election (i.e., their candidate/party won) and if they can make some linkage between that election and a current contest it gives them hope for their desired outcome.

Now, just like I argued the other day that 2012 isn’t 1994, I think, too, that it isn’t 1980 (or, more accurately, Obama isn’t Carter).

Specifically I am thinking about a comment in the aforementioned post that stated that Obama was Carter-like in having “a foriegn [sic] policy record that most Americans find weak and distasteful.”  Now, granted, that is just a blog-reader’s comment, but I have seen similar comparisons before.

For example, a quick trip to Googleland provides:

And one can readily find more.

Now, I do think that Obama has vulnerabilities on the economy, which is a generic point of comparison to Carter, although I think that the general structural conditions are different.

However, the foreign policy comparison is problematic on a variety of levels.

Let’s consider the areas of foreign policy that Carter faced a great deal of criticism over during his time in office (and I will use the kind of language that critics of Carter would have used at the time):

  • Losing Nicaragua to communists.
  • Losing Iran to Islamic extremists.
  • Giving away the Panama Canal.
  • America held hostage by the student radicals in Iran who captured the embassy (indeed, night after night, that was what the news stated:  “America Held Hostage, Day xx”).
  • Botching the hostage rescue attempt.

Now, I challenge anyone to come up with a comparable list for the current occupant of the White House.

If we get down to basics, the Obama administration’s policy on Iraq and Afghanistan (as both James Joyner and I have pointed out on numerous occasions) is pretty much the same as Bush’s second term (including the same SecDef).  Indeed, Obama has been more aggressive with drone strikes along the AfPak border.  There is the successful raid on Osama’s compound–which is the polar opposite of Carter’s attempted hostage rescue.  And on Libya the argument is not that Obama is too weak, but that he is being too aggressive.

Regardless of anything else one may think, I am not sure how this analogy holds.

Essentially, it seems to me that a lot of people have decided that a caricature of Carter is their ideal type Worst President Ever (just like a caricature of Reagan is their Best President Ever) that it therefore is necessary to state Obama=Carter, as if that constitutes analysis.  It doesn’t.

FILED UNDER: 2012 Election, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , ,
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter


  1. Joe R. says:

    Actually I think 2012 is like 2004: nobody apart from partisans likes the incumbent, but the opponent is distasteful enough to vote against.

  2. How come nobody wonders if an upcoming election is “like” 1872 or something like that?

  3. Jib says:

    How come nobody wonders if an upcoming election is “like” 1872 or something like that?

    umm, Republicans wont be finishing 1 and 2? If whoever finishes second dies between the election and the electoral college voting, then yes, 2012 will be just like 1872.

    But I will play along. 2012 will be just like 1896 when the young firebrand populist William Jennings Bryan sweep the south, the rural mid-west and mountain west but lost the white house to William McKinley.

    Currency issues (the gold standard versus free silver) as well as foreign trade (tariffs, McKinley for Bryan against) were big issues. Jennings won the nomination of 3 parties, the Democrats (played by the Republicans in 2012), the Populist Party (Tea Party in 2012), and the Silver Republicans (Libertarians? Debt hawks? I am reaching on this one).

    Yeah, 2012 will be just like 1896 with Obama playing the role of McKinley and a TBD Republican playing the role of Bryan.

    Why not, if nothing else, it would be entertaining.

  4. Rick Almeida says:

    How come nobody wonders if an upcoming election is “like” 1872 or something like that?

    Well, Sir Newt _did_ say that this was the most important election since 1860.

  5. @Doug: Well the death of Horace Greeley and the standing for reelection of a Civil War General might have something to do with the lack of comparisons to 1872. Those things just don’t happen a lot. And although I did see President Obama drinking Guinness today I don’t know that the is a drunk of the Grant’s stature.

    Irregardless, I believe that most of the Carter labeling going on has a political bent to it, and that President Obama’s first term should draw very few comparisons. Referencing the original comment, when I read it I chuckled, and thought to myself “kool-aid drinker that is buying a narrative.”

  6. PJ says:

    I can’t be the only one thinking that Doug didn’t mean 1872 literally? That it was more about the 2012 being compared to almost every recent election?

    And I’m guessing that as long as the comparisons are made by pundits and not presidential historians with actual knowledge, that won’t happen.

  7. Hey Norm says:

    I have seen the future… and the 2012 election will be just exactly like… the 2012 election.

  8. reid says:

    Look at the partisan hacks writing these things. It’s obvious nonsense, but they’re right-wing rags. It’s what they do. Write to the editor and tell them you’re tired of seeing such crap.

  9. tom p says:

    I have seen the future… and the 2012 election will be just exactly like… the 2012 election.


  10. Wayne says:

    Yes the past doesn’t necessary predict the future. However history does tend to repeat itself. The problem is many try to use hindsight which they incorrectly believe is 20/20 to say things like “it was obvious what was going to happen happened” etc when most often they didn’t know at the time. Also especially in politics, people prediction of the future using the past is very clouded with their bias. They cherry pick historic facts to indicate what they hope the future will be.

    How many around here have been “very confident” of the outcome of past elections and were dead wrong? Being “very confident” of the outcome should result in the predicted outcome almost all the time. Records count and if yours is low but you are confident in your guesses than you full of B.S. .

    I notice most of the main posters here have tried to use the past to predict the future. Such things like the GOP will be blame the most if the government shuts down just like during the Clinton years. The comparisons they don’t like are those that don’t fit within their thinking.

  11. Wayne says:

    On the Foreign policies issues for Obama.

    1.Obama is still fighting two wars that he promise to get out of.
    Granted Iraq is settling down a little but it was doing that before Bush left office. Mostly hurts Obama with his base.

    2. He has gotten us into a war with Libya that no one really understands why.

    3. Also possibly helping out extremist in taking control of Libya.

    4. Trying to give away Israel.Yes many can argue either side but that will be the perception to many.

    5. Along that line, he has insulted many of our allies while sucking up to our enemies.

    6. Has screw up and been incoherent in foreign policies like the uprising in Iran and Egypt.

    7. Has been inconsistent between his reaction to Libya and Syria.

    8. Unsuccessfully supported the President of Honduras who wanted to stay past Honduras’s Constitutional term limit.

    9. Giving Brazil billions to do offshore drilling while denying permits to drill offshore in U.S.

    10. Pakistan looking to have military ties to China including military bases in Pakistan.
    Granted they are not exactly the same as Carter but similar. Anyone that expects comparisons to be absolutely word for word has little concepts of what comparisons are.

    As for which election the 2012 will be comparable to. First there is a problem in a way too small sample size even if you consider earlier elections. That said IMO Obama will have the Presidential competency of Carter and many of personal characteristics of Kerry. I am not going into the Kerry comparisons now.

    At the moment it looks the GOP will produce a Bob Dole type candidate with an outcome similar to the 2000 election. However we have a year and a half where I expect many things will change.

  12. jwest says:

    I doubt the barely employed independents and conservative democrats who stop at the gas pumps on their way to vote will be thinking about the nuances of Obama’s foreign policy.

    It will be amazing if Obama does as well as Carter did in 1980.

  13. CB says:

    wayne, that list is a nonsensical load of tripe. there are many many reasons to critique obama’s FP. but that list just makes you look like you exist in an echo cahmber.

  14. Wayne says:

    Please state what problem you have with each one. One can disagree with them but they can be used never the less. Disagreeing with them doesn’t mean they are tripe.

    Many Liberal’s talking points and many Democratic political ads have far less to do with reality than anything I stated above.Like the current ads claiming the GOP want to do away with Medicare and throwing grandma off the cliff.

    We are talking about what the critics will say and as Steven pointed out has been said. It is a comparison after all. I am not a Carter fan but many of the above criticism were and are unfair. Then again fair has nothing to do with politics. Democrats and liberals often unfairly criticize their opponents. Sometimes it even works.