Our resident Penguatroll asked me via Twitter whether I considered Jimmy Carter or Barack Obama the worse President. I don’t want to give a brusque, one-sentence reply like “They’re both equally crappy.” I’d actually like to spend a little bit of time on the comparison, because there’s a lot in common and a lot of failure between the two. I’ll break it up into three categories: foreign policy, domestic policy, and legal policy (i.e., corruption).
Jimmy Carter’s best-known foreign policy bit was the failed raid against Iran in 1979 and the general impotence surrounding it. Aside from that, Carter’s primary foreign policy moves were against Nixonian realpolitik. This included alienating undesirable but important allies in countries like South Korea, Argentina, and Iran. On the plus side, the Israelis and Egyptians used him to score free tickets to Camp David; Carter did very little during those negotiations but I’ll still give him credit for that. He also started the practice of tying US support to human rights. I’ll give him a minor plus on that but just a minor one—after all, his human rights pushes were primarily for US allies instead of the biggest human rights violators (i.e., the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact, Red China, etc.).
Like Carter, Obama has not been much of a foreign policy President. The biggest positive was killing Osama bin Laden, but aside from that, there hasn’t been too much on that side of the slate. Obama has pushed away and repudiated allies on several occasions, including repeated snubbing of the UK government, hanging France (France!) out to dry on military action in Syria, and alienating Canada with regard to the Keystone pipeline. During his presidency, the Middle East has suffered: gains in Iraq have been rolled back, Egypt and Libya have gone from bad to worse, Syria has effectively become a fight between al-Queda and Iran/Hezbollah, Iran is close to having nuclear weapons, and the Saudi Arabian government has pulled away to the point where they have broken off diplomatic relations with the US.
Advantage: Obama. Obama has the advantage of being in an era in which foreign policy is relatively less important. Carter’s mistakes came in the middle of the Cold War and thus a lot more devastating. But both have made essentially the same classification of mistake.
The thing that sticks with us about Jimmy Carter’s domestic policy was its weakness. The cardigan sweater and energy crisis were classic Carter. Fortunately for him, he didn’t get many of his pet projects through—the big ones would have gone over like Obamacare. Carter suffered under the dominant Keynesian ideas of the time and was unable to figure out the idea of stagflation. He really was a “manage the decline” type of president who believed in price controls and expanding government. On the plus side, he appointed Paul Volcker as chairman of the Federal Reserve and started the airline deregulation process.
As for Obama, his primary initiative is Obamacare, which is just now coming into effect and gets worse with each passing day. Prior to Obamacare, TARP and ARRA were Obama’s major legislative victories. Under his presidency, unemployment has been consistently high and stagnant (with declines coming mostly from people dropping out of the workforce), but inflation has been very low. On the minus side, budget deficits have been at historical highs and the debt has grown tremendously. Obama had the good fortune of both shale oil and natural gas deposits coming into the market in large quantities, as otherwise gasoline prices would have jumped even higher over the past few years.
Advantage: Carter. Carter’s domestic policy didn’t hurt as much and the worst part (stagflation) was handled in the first three years of Reagan’s term. Obama’s damage will be greater in the long term.
By this, I don’t mean Supreme Court nominations (advantage Carter, in that he didn’t have a chance to nominate anybody), but rather corruption. In this case, there was very little corruption during the Carter years. Most of the corruption at the time involved Democrats in Congress, but Carter had little control there.
On the Obama side, Michelle Malkin wrote an entire book on the topic, released in 2010. Since then, we’ve gotten word that the IRS has been used as a cudgel against political opponents, that the ATF sold guns to drug cartels in Mexico, and there are a disturbing number of cases in which members of the administration leak legitimately classified details when it suits them while at the same time classifying things they don’t want people to see.
Advantage: Carter. The man may have been a dope, but at least he wasn’t a Chicago-style politician.
Depending upon how you rank these, you could choose either as the lesser of two evils. I tend to weigh domestic policy greater than foreign policy and both greater than corruption, so I would pick Obama as the worse president. Fortunately for both of them, James Buchanan was president once.