Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Deconstructing the Meme: “The Worst President Since Carter”

President Carterby Nomad

If you are unlucky enough to encounter a die-hard neo-conservative or tea-party member, you are quite likely to hear them use this phrase to castigate President Obama.
"Obama? He’s the worst president since Carter.”
Its use has all of the hallmarks of Rovian propaganda. As a phrase, it is mindlessly repeated without any clarification, and dropped into a discussion like a finely-rolled ball of manure as if these twin statements were facts beyond question or debate.

According to its own logic, Obama is a terrible president just like Jimmy Carter was a terrible president. They rarely elaborate or feel the need to, since it is, they seem to think, a matter of common knowledge.
Lately even Candidate Romney has been attempting to put this comparison into use. Recently Romney said. “Who would’ve guessed we’d look back at the Carter years as the good ol’ days, you know?” To some, that kind of talk smacks of desperation.
Given the disastrous interval between the years 2000 and 2008, I thought the phrase "the worst president" deserved a closer look. 
The use of this phrase is a prime example of framing the argument, a technique, as Professor George Lakoff has noted, that Republicans have mastered. They tend, Lakoff pointed out, to appropriate language (as well as images, references and implications) in order to steer the discussion. In doing so, they force their opposing side to make use of the same words and phrases, much to their disadvantage.

Therefore, reductions in taxes suddenly becomes “tax relief”- as if taxes were something that required an antidote and not an effective means of generating revenue. (A progressive using effective framing, as Lakoff defines it, would  use the term "tax duty" or "tax responsibility" and encourage all other progressives to use the same terminology.) 

Let’s return to the phrase, the worst president since Carter.” 
“Worst,” being the superlative of the adjective “bad,” is a highly subjective word and can interpreted using many factors. One factor commonly cited is the public approval rating of a president’s performance, which is usually thought to be more objective. 

When one looks at the graph of presidential approval ratings, a few things become instantly clear. Carter’s approval ratings were bad but not spectacularly bad. Truman, Nixon and George W. Bush all had much lower approval ratings. 

Back in 1999, before the fiasco of the Bush administration, ABC news repeated this misleading argument in a article regarding Carter
By the time he left Washington in 1980 a mere 34 percent of Americans approved of his work, and his career average was worse than even Gerald Ford's or Richard Nixon's.
The graph suggests something very different. 
Presidential approval rating
For all graphs Source: Gallup, WSJ research
Nearly every president has failed to live up to public expectations. 
Only Eisenhower and Clinton finished their terms with an approval rating above 60% and only Clinton ended his presidency on a higher level than he did going in. 

(Even John F Kennedy, considered  fairly well-beloved, slipped just below 50 % at the time of his assassination.) 

Incidentally, Lincoln and Truman had miserable ratings as a president and yet today, both rank in the top five greatest American presidents. 
The approval ratings of Nixon, Johnson and George H.W Bush all tumbled while in office but no president’s fall from grace came anywhere close to George W. Bush, from a remarkable high after the 911 attacks to his approval rating free fall that continued all through his presidency. It takes a special kind of talent to throw away that much public support. 

There’s something else that’s important to keep in mind; what the expectations were that made the candidate into the president.

What Made Carter President
It is important to note how Jimmy Carter became president. Carter was something of an oddity when he first appeared on the national stage. As a born-again Southern baptist peanut farmer, Carter was, by any definition, a Washington outsider and for the cliquish beltway reporters and residents, he was a kind of joke. Who was this guy? they smirked. 

However, as Carter began campaigning, many influential Republicans were dismayed to find this strange fellow from Plains, Georgia rising in the polls. In this case, the GOP had failed to understand the mood of the American public. The trauma of Watergate still hung in the air like a stench and President Gerald Ford- who was running against Jimmy Carter- was looked upon as just one of Nixon’s crew. 

Democratic voters pointed to Ford’s pardoning of the disgraced president- for crimes he “may or may not have committed.” This unusual step was considered a means of thwarting justice and preventing any further investigation. Allowing a president to escape without being held accountable was not how things were supposed to be done. The obstruction of justice, first by Nixon during the Watergate investigation and later by Ford in his pardon, became a signature of the Republican party. And it left a bitter taste in the mouths of many Americans.

The idea that Gerald Ford should even be president in the first place seemed out of order; the idea of re-electing him, unthinkable. Indeed, Ford was the only president who came to highest office entirely unelected by the people.

Many people denounced Ford’s breathtaking rise from vice-president (after the Spiro Agnew stepped down on October 10, 1973) to US president (when Nixon resigned on April 30, 1974 ). It all seemed un-democratic and shady.

In a matter of months, Gerald Ford, a relative unknown, took the oath of office on August 9, 1974. It was an unprecedented and, some said, a sinister means of succession. Ford could never shake the suspicion that he was a product of Nixon- who at the that time was considered the worst of all the presidents of the United States.

Change and Hope
It might be only a slight exaggeration to say that a vote for Carter back in 1976 was a vote against the corruption of Nixon. Nevertheless, it is important to recall how people thought of Carter during his presidential campaign. 
...(T)he nation saw more than ambition in Jimmy Carter. By September 1976, a Gallup poll found that 68 percent of the public believed that Carter was "a man of high moral character," while 74 percent deemed him "bright, intelligent"- adjectives that suggested competence, which was not a choice available to the poll's respondents. Except for the 72 percent who considered him to be "a religious person," a perception not inconsistent with moral character, these two traits topped the list of those attributed to him. And less than months later, the people who perceived him this way elected him president.
Carter would never have become president if the public mood had not been so spoiled by the disturbing House Committee revelations that had come out about Republican corruption, cover-ups, and influence peddling in exchange for campaign contributions. 

Carter's acceptance speech at the Democratic convention in July 1976 demonstrates that he too understand what American was searching for. He spoke of the public backlash against "scandals and broken promises" and the need for "inspiration and hope." And that played well in the year of the American bicentennial. What Americans were looking for was a rebirth.

If Nixon could escape impeachment, to essentially thwart justice, then at least, there could be a meaningful change in the quality of leadership. The humble peanut-farmer with the hillbilly accent came like refreshing breeze to the stinking latrine of Washington.

Riding on the wave of the rejection of Republican immorality, Carter spoke of a new feeling and new expression of change. His message back then would have been as popular today as it was then.
Too many have had to suffer at the hands of a political economic elite who have shaped decisions and never had to account for mistakes or to suffer from injustice. When unemployment prevails, they never stand in line looking for a job.When deprivation results from a confused and bewildering welfare system, they never do without food or clothing or a place to sleep. When the public schools are inferior or torn by strife, their children go to exclusive private schools. And when the bureaucracy is bloated and confused, the powerful always manage to discover and occupy niches of special influence and privilege. An unfair tax structure serves their needs. And tight secrecy always seems to prevent reform.
Sound familiar? 
If nothing else, America learned one thing from Carter’s presidency, that high moral character and competency do not go hand in hand. Bright and intelligent people with high moral character can easily be painted as weak and incompetent when compared to presidents who are essentially amoral and are capable of deception and ruthlessness.

Carter approval  rating
Carter: Overall low approval ratings
Carter’s primary failure was in not bringing about the reforms that the nation mandated. Washington proved much too strong and, despite being an essentially honest politician, Carter was unable to significantly make any change. But the failure also belonged to the American people for turning their back on hard reality of sacrifice and frugality, and choosing to believe in a colorful and patriotic- but illusory- Hollywood version of America.

By 1980, when Carter had failed to deliver on change, the nation’s disillusionment set in. With his July 1979 speech to the nation, President Carter made a last minute attempt to reach out to the conscience of America, but it was too late. Ronald Reagan offered America a new promise of change and hope. Carter had seen what 
Reagan’s vision amounted to when he said:
We are at a turning point in our history. There are two paths to choose. One is a path I've warned about tonight, the path that leads to fragmentation and self-interest. Down that road lies a mistaken idea of freedom, the right to grasp for ourselves some advantage over others. That path would be one of constant conflict between narrow interests ending in chaos and immobility. It is a certain route to failure.
Despite the Republican allegation of being the worst president, time has been kind to Jimmy Carter. Asked in 1999 to rate Carter's performance as president, 66 percent of Americans approve – nearly double the number at the time of his departure nearly 20 years ago. After the Bush presidency, those numbers are likely to have climbed quite a bit.

The Runner-Up for the Crown of Infamy
To call Jimmy Carter, the worst president in American history, is to consciously deny the events that came before him. All the revelations about CIA intrigue and the clumsy bungling of Watergate, the lies, the embarrassment and the sordid pettiness of the Nixon administration. Since Carter was hired to bring about change to a nation sick of the corruption of the Nixonian era. to place that label on Carter is, in a way, giving approval to Nixon’s unpunished crimes. 
And there’s something else wrong. If giving Carter the title is ignoring what came before, it is also ignoring what came after: meaning, the actual record of the champion of the right wing, Ronald Reagan who lays a better claim to the title of “worst president.”

Investigative journalist and author of several books on the Reagan era and the Iran-Contra scandal, Robert Parry, points out:
Granted, the very idea of rating Reagan as one of the worst presidents ever will infuriate his many right-wing acolytes and offend Washington insiders who have made a cottage industry out of buying some protection from Republicans by lauding the 40th President...
But there’s a growing realization that the starting point for many of the catastrophes confronting the United States today can be traced to Reagan’s presidency. There’s also a grudging reassessment that the “failed” presidents of the 1970s – Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter – may deserve more credit for trying to grapple with the problems that now beset the country....
However, powerful vested interests – both domestic and foreign – managed to exploit the shortcomings of these three presidents to sabotage any sustained progress. By 1980, Reagan had become a pied piper luring the American people away from the tough choices that Nixon, Ford and Carter had defined.
Reagan pushed for deregulation of industries, including banking; he slashed income taxes for the wealthiest Americans in an experiment known as “supply side” economics, which held falsely that cutting rates for the rich would increase revenues and eliminate the federal deficit.
Over the years, “supply side” would evolve into a secular religion for many on the Right, but Reagan’s budget director David Stockman once blurted out the truth, that it would lead to red ink “as far as the eye could see.
Forty years have passed and the truth of Carter’s warning has been made apparent (at least to some of us.). Reagan’s legacy was not a more effective government- or even a smaller one- and it was not a more fair system of taxation or a road to American prosperity for all of us.

It was all just a hoax.
And even now, even in the election of 2012, Republicans have nothing new to offer but a continuation of the failed Reagan policies that have had their time of testing and have proven to be calamitous for the nation.
Ironically, almost every poll regarding great presidents Americans today still rank Reagan to be in the top ten (or higher). This is perhaps the main problem with politics, the fact that so many voters are unable- or unwilling- to see the failure of Reaganomics and to admit they, the neo-conservative voters, were wrong, that they were victims of their own arrogance and stupidity.

The Worst President Since Reagan
George W. Bush approval  rating
Bush: Downhill all the way
In October of 2007, President Bush told an audience in Lancaster, Pennsylvania,
"I got a lot of Ph.D.-types and smart people around me who come into the Oval Office and say, 'Mr. President, here's what's on my mind.' And I listen carefully to their advice. But having gathered the device, I decide, you know, I say, 'This is what we're going to do.' "
Like much of what Bush said, this statement unwittingly reveals so much about what went wrong during that time. The person in charge makes all the difference. If you’ve elected the wrong person, a person lacking in common sense, or lacking in common morality, all of the “smart people” in the world can not prevent the catastrophes to follow.

But to be fair, the denouement of the great Reagan con happened to arrive in the presidency of George W. Bush who, more than any other president deserves the title of “the worst president.” A 2006 Siena College poll of 744 professors reported the following results:
"George W. Bush has just finished five years as President. If today were the last day of his presidency, how would you rank him? The responses were:
  • Great: 2%
  • Near Great: 5%;
  • Average: 11%;
  • Below Average: 24%;
  • Failure: 58%."
In an informal survey of 109 professional historians polled by George Mason University's History News Network, 98.2 percent assessed the presidency of Mr. Bush to be a failure while only 1.8 percent considered it a success. Furthermore, over 61 percent of those historians named President Bush as the worst president against the 41 other presidents. 

One historian in the survey remarked:
“He is easily one of the 10-worst of all time and—if the magnitude of the challenges and opportunities matter—then probably in the bottom five, alongside Buchanan, Johnson, Fillmore, and Pierce.”
It’s revealing also how far back into history these learned scholars had to go to find any president to compare. In any case, there was no mention of Jimmy Carter there.
When asked to specify their reasons for making such a judgment, The comments of the respondents could only be described as “scathing.”

Another classified Bush as “an ideologue who got the nation into a totally unnecessary war, and has broken the Constitution more often than even Nixon. He is not a conservative, nor a Christian, just an immoral man .
These remarks are especially extraordinary since professional historians are presumed to be trained to take a more impartial or at least the wider view.

“It would be difficult to identify a President who, facing major international and domestic crises, has failed in both as clearly as President Bush,” concluded one respondent. “His domestic policies,” another noted, “have had the cumulative effect of shoring up a semi-permanent aristocracy of capital that dwarfs the aristocracy of land against which the founding fathers rebelled; of encouraging a mindless retreat from science and rationalism; and of crippling the nation’s economic base.”
The extent of devastation left by the Bush administration is hard to calculate, even if one chose to ignore the damage to American international image. As one author of the survey, Millsaps College’s Robert S. McElvainepoints out:
Mr. Bush inherited a sizable budget surplus and a thriving economy. By pushing through huge tax cuts for the rich while increasing federal spending at a rapid rate, Bush transformed the surplus into a massive deficit. The tax cuts and other policies accelerated the concentration of wealth and income among the very richest Americans. These policies combined with unwavering opposition to necessary government regulations have produced the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. Then there is the incredible shrinking dollar, the appointment of incompetent cronies, the totally inexcusable failure to react properly to the disaster of Hurricane Katrina, the blatant disregard for the Constitution—and on and on.
Only four years have passed since Bush bid farewell to the White House. Is it possible that history and historians will take a second more kindly look at his era?

Who knows what people will be saying about George Bush 20 years later?

In Roman times, emperors who fell out of favor had their names obliterated from public monuments and the heads of their statues were lopped off and replaced with more favorable faces. American memories are much too short to bother with all that. 

I suppose it is not surprising that the Republican party would rather voters totally forget (or at least, not look too carefully at) the recent past and the record of the leader who most deserves to wear the title “the worst president.” Yet, facts are stubborn things. The truth is the worst president wasn’t Jimmy Carter and it isn’t President Obama, no matter how often the Republican conservatives might promote that particular notion.

Back on May 24, 2005, then-president George Bush made this jaw-dropping statement,
"See, in my line of work you got to keep repeating things over and over and over again for the truth to sink in, to kind of catapult the propaganda."
Hmm.. catapult the propaganda? That phrase certainly reminds us of the kind of phraseology that we were accustomed to during the Bush years. Whatever.

Beyond that nonsense, Bush has revealed himself and this strategy yet again. Keep repeating the phrase “the worst president since Carter”, keep interjecting into comments whenever possible and perhaps, despite all of the evidence to the contrary, some percentage of people will swallow the lie. Fox News has based all of its programming on exactly the same method.

Speaking on National Public Radio on January 29, 2007, President Bush, in fumbling another "smart person" word, accidentally exposed the truth,
"And there is distrust in Washington. I am surprised, frankly, at the amount of distrust that exists in this town. And I'm sorry it's the case, and I'll work hard to try to elevate it.
At least in this regard, Bush was successful.

obama approval rating
Obama: Only Average
That distrust- caused first by Republican Nixon- put Democrat Carter into the White House. Later, the same distrust -caused by Republican Bush -would propel Progressive Obama into the executive position.

If Carter or Obama have any claim to failure as presidents it is only this: 

After tapping into the palpable public desire for change, and raising those hopes for meaningful change, neither of them were able to reverse the appalling disarray left by the Republican presidents that preceded them. It would take more than four short years to do achieve that task.