The last Democratic president to have so many ambitious priorities was Jimmy Carter. Through most of his term, Carter was largely thwarted by a Democratic Congress anxious to assert itself after Richard Nixon’s imperial presidency. (He was finally undone by the Iran hostage crisis and a sluggish economy, of course.) Carter was much better at eliciting the support of conservative Republicans than he was of liberal Democrats in Congress.
Like Obama, Carter began his term with the utmost confidence. But he overextended both himself and his presidency, ultimately unable to forge coalitions owing in part to the bad blood created by the sheer weight and depth of his reach for reforms.
But it wasn’t just Carter’s penchant for spreading himself and his administration thin that eroded his support among Democrats, leading to Senator Ted Kennedy’s petulant run against Carter for the 1980 Democratic presidential nomination. Among congressional Democrats then there existed a sense of entitlement to power and a belief that Carter should defer to them. He, they felt, was a naive and overly intrusive upstart who needed to know who was boss.
Exacerbating Carter’s problems in dealing with Congress and the country was his own prickly personality. In intellect, temperament, and the need to be in control, Carter most resembled Woodrow Wilson, whose insistence on taking personal charge of negotiations at Versailles after World War 1 took him away from Washington for many months just as Carter’s personal involvement in the Camp David Accords, while producing one of the notable achievements of his presidency, also took him out of the loop on other pressing matters. Carter, like Wilson, could be intransigent to the point of undermining his own agenda.
President Obama seems temperamentally suited to pursuing his ambitious agenda. The mere appearance of being willing to listen will strengthen his position with players in Washington and with the public. This stands in contrast to Carter and of more importance, in public perception, also in contrast to his immediate predecessor.
In 1977, when Jimmy Carter became president, Americans were fed up with politics as usual. A similar sentiment, along with deep concern about a big recession, have afforded Mr. Obama enormous opportunities. If Americans are as committed to change as their election of the president suggests, then his agenda, ambitious or not, may suit the times.
But it will require every ounce of the considerable skills that the president and his staff have displayed over the past four-plus years for him to be a successful president. (And to avoid getting spread too thin, he needs to fill his administration as quickly as possible.)
If Jimmy Carter’s experience is any indication, Mr. Obama’s biggest challenge in pursuing his agenda will come in dealing with congressional members of his own party. So far, the president has done well in dealing with their jealousy for power and position over their “areas of expertise.” But the broader his agenda becomes and especially when Congress moves to deal with health care and the budget, where powerful members of the Congress are already asserting their power to offer Democratic alternatives to the proposals of the President, the more difficult it will be to keep his fellow Democrats in line. It will require Mr. Obama to bend and to dig in at just the right times.
Obama, I believe, is up to the challenge. But his administration will continue to be fascinating to watch.
[My personal blog is here.]