Treat Your Democrats Well

Article excerpt

Byline: Julian E. Zelizer

Tough lessons President Obama needs to learn from Jimmy Carter and the midterms of 1978.

President Obama has looked to Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson because of their ability to move big legislation through Congress. He has looked to Ronald Reagan because he was a transformative leader. He's looked to Bill Clinton for help, because nobody plays the game of politics better. Unfortunately, however, as Obama leads his party into the 2010 midterms he seems to be following the model of Jimmy Carter in 1978.

Obama can boast that he's enjoyed several legislative victories in his first 20 months: an economic-stimulus bill, health-care reform, and financial regulation. But like Carter, he hasn't been comfortable acting as a party leader. On top of the recession, the policies that Obama decided to pursue have left Democrats in a weaker position than they were in 2008, when many commentators predicted a liberal renaissance. At least some members of his party don't feel he has their backs.

It's easy to forget that Carter also scored big victories during his first two years in the White House. After his first 100 days he enjoyed 68 percent approval ratings, and Washington Post columnist Joseph Kraft noted that "Republicans and Independents like him as well as Democrats do." In 1978, the president used that political capital to push the Senate to ratify the Panama Canal treaties. The treaties were crucial, in Carter's mind, if the U.S. wanted to rebuild trust among Latin Americans. The Senate ratified the treaties by one vote, and Carter claimed a major victory. On domestic policy Carter won passage of energy-reform legislation, though it was watered down and divided his party. Congress also enacted the Ethics in Government Act, which created the Office of the Independent Counsel, and it deregulated the airlines. Yet none of these initiatives excited middle- or working-class Americans suffering through stagnation.

The Obama White House has likewise pressured Democrats to take up controversial measures. With the economy faltering, Obama persuaded Democrats to push through a health-care bill that will require many citizens to purchase coverage or pay a fine. Yet most of the biggest benefits don't kick in until 2014. Polls show that more than 50 percent of the country does not support the bill. …