For The Weekly Standard’s Jay Cost, it’s Jimmy Carter, the preferred bogeyman of conservatives and right-wingers. Cost begins on a reasonable note, pointing out the extent to which campaigns can’t overcome poor economic performance, but then goes off the rails with his Carter comparison, ignoring the actual substance of Carter’s presidency as compared to Obama’s.
Yes, Cost is right to place Obama on shaky ground for his re-election campaign. Unemployment isn’t projected to dip below 8 percent until 2013, per capita disposable income is stagnant and Obama is trailing the “generic Republican” by six percentage points, according to a recent Gallup survey. On the other hand, Obama has several advantages that eluded Carter. For starters, Obama has run a competent administration, and has signed several major pieces of legislation: the Affordable Care Act, Dodd-Frank, and “don’t ask don’t tell” repeal. These are actual accomplishments, and will help when Obama makes his case for a second term. By contrast, with the notable exception of deregulation, Carter accomplished little on the domestic front, thanks to his tough and alienated relationships with liberal activists and Congressional Democrats.
More importantly (for his re-election campaign) is the fact that Obama is still more popular than each of the Republican candidates for president, the generic advantage notwithstanding. According to a recent NBC poll, Obama leads Mitt Romney by six points in a hypothetical match-up (49 to 43) and Tim Pawlenty by 13 points (50 to 37). 49 percent of Americans approve of his job performance, making him the most popular politician among the possible choices for president in 2012.
Jimmy Carter, on the other hand, was wildly unpopular by the time 1980 rolled around, and faced a credible primary challenge from Senator Ted Kennedy. What’s more, the public blamed Carter for the poor economy of the late seventies, which isn’t true of Obama and today; more than six in ten Americans say that President Obama inherited the country’s economic problems, and 47 percent place most of the blame on George W. Bush.
Of course, none of this is to discount the problem of a poor economy. If things are bad enough, a Republican will win the White House in 2012. But if we’re working with historical analogies, this would make Barack Obama the second coming of George H.W. Bush—another president who floundered in the face of a poor economy—and not a retread of the hapless peanut farmer from Georgia.