Walter Mondale himself sees a parallel.
Comparisons between the Obama White House and the failed presidency of Jimmy Carter are increasingly being made—and by Democrats.
Walter Mondale, Mr. Carter’s vice president, told The New Yorker this week that anxious and angry voters in the late 1970s “just turned against us—same as with Obama.” As the polls turned against his administration, Mr. Mondale recalled that Mr. Carter “began to lose confidence in his ability to move the public.” Democrats on Capitol Hill are now saying this is happening to Mr. Obama.
Mr. Mondale says it’s time for the president “to get rid of those teleprompters and connect” with voters. Another of Mr. Obama’s clear errors has been to turn over the drafting of key legislation to the Democratic Congress: “That doesn’t work even when you own Congress,” he said. “You have to ride ’em.”
Mr. Carter himself is heightening comparisons with his own presidency by publishing his White House diaries this week. “I overburdened Congress with an array of controversial and politically costly requests,” he said on Monday. The parallels to Mr. Obama’s experience are clear.
Comparisons between the two men were made frequently during the 2008 campaign, but in a favorable way. Princeton University historian Sean Wilentz, for instance, told Fox News in August 2008 that Mr. Obama’s “rhetoric is more like Jimmy Carter’s than any other Democratic president in recent memory.” Syndicated columnist Jonah Goldberg noted more recently that Mr. Obama, like Mr. Carter in his 1976 campaign, “promised a transformational presidency, a new accommodation with religion, a new centrism, a changed tone.”
But within a few months, liberals were already finding fault with his rhetoric. “He’s the great earnest bore at the dinner party,” wrote Michael Wolff, a contributor to Vanity Fair. “He’s cold; he’s prickly; he’s uncomfortable; he’s not funny; and he’s getting awfully tedious. He thinks it’s all about him.” That sounds like a critique of Mr. Carter.
Foreign policy experts are also picking up on similarities. Walter Russell Mead, then a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, told the Economist magazine earlier this year that Mr. Obama is “avoiding the worst mistakes that plagued Carter.” But he warns that presidents like Mr. Obama who emphasize “human rights” can fall prey to the temptation of picking on weak countries while ignoring more dire human rights issues in powerful countries (Russia, China, Iran). Over time that can “hollow out an administration’s credibility and make a president look weak.” Mr. Mead warned that Mr. Obama’s foreign policy “to some degree makes him dependent on people who wish neither him nor America well. This doesn’t have to end badly and I hope that it doesn’t—but it’s not an ideal position after one’s first year in power.”
Liberals increasingly can’t avoid making connections between Mr. Carter’s political troubles and those of Mr. Obama. In July, MSNBC’s Chris Matthews asked his guests if Democrats up for re-election will “run away from President O’Carter.” After much laughter, John Heileman of New York Magazine quipped “Calling Dr. Freud.” To which Mr. Matthews, a former Carter speechwriter, sighed “I know.”
Pat Caddell, who was Mr. Carter’s pollster while he was in the White House, thinks some comparisons between the two men are overblown. But he notes that any White House that is sinking in the polls takes on a “bunker mentality” that leads the president to become isolated and consult with fewer and fewer people from the outside. Mr. Caddell told me that his Democratic friends think that’s happening to Mr. Obama—and that the president’s ability to pull himself out of a political tailspin is hampered by his resistance to seek out fresh thinking.
The Obama White House is clearly cognizant of the comparisons being made between the two presidents. This month, environmental activist Bill McKibben met with White House aides to convince them to reinstall a set of solar panels that Mr. Carter had placed on the White House roof. They were taken down in 1986 following roof repairs. Mr. McKibben said it was time to bring them back to demonstrate Mr. Obama’s support for alternative energy.
But Mr. McKibben told reporters that the White House “refused to take the Carter-era panel that we brought with us” and only said that they would continue to ponder “what is appropriate” for the White House’s energy needs. Britain’s Guardian newspaper reported that the Obama aides were “twitchy perhaps about inviting any comparison (to Mr. Carter) in the run-up to the very difficult mid-term elections.” Democrats need no reminding that Mr. Carter wound up costing them dearly in 1978 and 1980 as Republicans made major gains in Congress.
Mr. Fund is a columnist for WSJ.com.