Soul brothers: Carter, Clinton, Obama

Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton were white men who were Governors of Southern states.  President Barack Obama is a black man who was a Senator from a Midwestern state.  Yet in their politics and policies, they are more alike than they are different.

All three ran for office as outsiders.  They had little or no experience on the national scene, but they turned that liability into an asset.  They said they would break with politics as usual in Washington, and bring about a new era.  Once in office, they claimed to transcend partisanship, and to have got beyond traditional liberal vs. conservative thinking.

In fact, none of them represented a break with the past.  They filled their Cabinets from the ranks of the Washington establishment.  They weren’t exactly failures.  They all had certain accomplishments.  But neither Carter nor Clinton was a transformative President in the way that Presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush were, and I expect the same will be true of Obama.

Presidents Carter, Clinton and Obama have been outstanding in their intellectual mastery of the details of policy and government – much more so than Presidents Reagan and George W. Bush.  But Reagan and Bush knew something more important.  They knew their own minds.  They had guiding philosophies which informed their judgments and the judgments of their superiors.

Carter and Clinton were pragmatists, as is Obama. They rejected “ideology.”  Their aim, like Obama’s, was to support whatever produced the best results.  But in practice, they seemed to flounder.  In contrast to the Reagan and Bush administrations, their administrations lacked direction.  Pragmatism was un-pragmatic.  It didn’t work.

Reagan and Bush met the “elevator speech” test; you could state their principles to somebody on an elevator before the person got off at the next floor.  Their basic principle was that government was evil and its activities should be minimized, except in regard to national security and preserving order, in which case its powers should be absolute.  I don’t agree with this philosophy, but it is understandable.  I could not give an elevator speech explaining Carter’s philosophy, nor Clinton’s, nor Obama’s.

Jimmy Carter ran for President on the basis of morality rather than policy.  His slogan was, “A government as good as its people.”  (A cynic might say that is what we got.)  Carter tried to introduce “zero-based budgeting” – judging each budget item on its merits, as if it was being proposed for the first time.  But he soon found this was impossible. Nobody has the time or the knowledge to make such judgments.  Politics requires making decisions on the basis of partial knowledge, because you can’t wait until all the facts are in.  Those decisions are based on certain assumptions, whether or not you’re conscious of what those assumptions are.

President Carter’s assumptions were not all that different from Ronald Reagan’s.  Much of what we call “Reaganomics” originated in the Carter administration – the 1978 tax law, which reduced the top capital gains tax rate from 70 percent to 28 percent, and the deregulation of the airline industry, which administration officials hoped to follow by deregulating the trucking industry.

Bill Clinton came into office on a more populist platform. His slogan was “Putting people first.”  But he felt he had to govern, in his words, as “an Eisenhower Republican.”  Clinton brought Reagan’s North American Free Trade Agreement into reality.  With the help of Al Gore, he reduced the federal government’s civilian employment and civilian spending (adjusted for inflation) during his term of office.

He promised to “end welfare as we know it” and signed into law the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act of 1996, imposing work requirements for welfare recipients and setting lifetime limits as to what they could get.  He signed into law the Financial Services Modernization Act of 1999, which abolished the firewalls between investment and commercial banking, and between banking, insurance and stock trading – which unleashed a wave of speculation and mergers that resulted in the 2008 financial crash.  These two laws were Republican initiatives, but Clinton embraced them, and took credit for them.

President Clinton’s political strategy was “triangulation” – establishing himself not as the Democratic champion, but as the supposedly impartial arbiter between the Republicans and his own party.  This worked for him personally, although not for his party.  By embracing the Republican position on welfare restrictions and financial services deregulation, he stole their thunder and deprived them of issues.

Barack Obama ran on a slogan of “change we can believe in,” but, in office, he represented continuity rather than change.  He endorsed and continued President George W. Bush’s Trouble Asset Relief Program to relieve banks of the burden of their bad investments.  He abandoned his plan for a public option on health insurance, and instead embraced a version of Republican Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney’s health insurance mandates.  He watered down his economic stimulus plan to include the kind of tax breaks that Republicans traditionally favor at the expense of the kind of public works that Democrats traditionally favor.

He has appointed a deficit study commission loaded with opponents and critics of the system, which is widely expected to recommend cutbacks in Social Security benefits, higher Social Security payroll taxes, a higher retirement age for full Social Security benefits, or all three.

These tactics may not work as well for him as for President Clinton.  Now matter how much he compromises, the Republicans back away from him, and what previously was the center now becomes the left.  As things are shaping up, the Democrats can expect big losses in Congress, just as in the middle of President Clinton’s first term.

The big gains the Demcorats made in 2006 and 2008 were based on public dissatisfaction with the failures of the George W. Bush administration.  But now that the Democrats are in power, the public expects them to do better.  It is not enough to try to frighten the public with the spectre of the Tea Party or Sarah Palin.

The claims of the Carter, Clinton and Obama administrations were that times have changed since the New Deal era, and their policies fit the realities of a new era.  But do they?  Reductions in marginal tax rates for the ultra-rich have not stimulated investment in American industry.  Our international trade policies have not made American industry more competitive.  Deregulating banks merely unleashed a speculative bubble. Obama’s timid stimulus package has not had a noticeable effect on the unemployment rate.

Albert Einstein is supposed to have said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.  The great management consultant, Peter Drucker, wrote somewhere that when three people in succession fail in the same job, the problem is in the system, not in the qualities of the particular individuals.

What is the systemic reason that three such different politicians do the same things, with the same disappointing results?  After all, neither Carter, Clinton nor Obama nominated themselves.  When faced with the clear choice of a centrist and a populist – Jimmy Carter vs. Ted Kennedy, John Kerry vs. Howard Dean – they chose the centrist.  In 2008, Barack Obama was to the right of Hillary Clinton and John Edwards on all important issues except for the fact of having opposed the invasion of Iraq.

An astute Republican friend of mine remakred that this should not be surprising.  Republican conservatism is more in tune with the basic values of Americans than Democratic liberalism is, he said.  There is truth in this, but it is not the whole truth.

Like most Americans, I was brought up to believe in self-reliance and individual freedom – which are values that Republicans and conservatives claim to represent.  But I also was brought up to sympathize with the underdog, to distrust hereditary wealth and privilege, and to believe honest labor deserved its reward – which are traditional American values that Democrats and liberals claim to represent.  The Democratic leaders have lost confidence in those values.  They act as if they are half-convinced their opponents are right.  But if Democrats and liberals act as if they do not really believe in their values, why should anybody else take them seriously?

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