When Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney wanted to prove that he would have displayed the same steely resolve as President Obama in making the decision to kill terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden, he needed utter only eight words to evoke memories of a Democrat who struggled mightily with foreign policy.
“Even Jimmy Carter would have given that order,” Romney said at a campaign event in Portsmouth, N.H., last week.
As a symbol of a largely unsuccessful Democratic presidency, former one-term President Jimmy Carter has been a Republican punching bag for decades. But that’s just the problem with Romney's decision to resurrect him as a rhetorical foil in 2012: It’s been over three decades since he was in office -- Carter lost his reelection bid to Republican Ronald Reagan in 1980.
“Do you think people remember what Jimmy Carter did? This is ancient history to most people,” said presidential historian Robert Dallek. “I assure you, people don’t remember what presidents do.”
That may not be entirely true. Many people remember that Carter was in office when 66 Americans were taken hostage from the American embassy in Tehran and that he oversaw the failed rescue attempt that helped contribute to his defeat in the election. Many people also remember the 1979 energy crisis that drove up the price of oil. But the people who might clearly remember those events are now middle-aged or better.
“For younger voters, through their 20s, it's not someone they lived through … It's just the history books, and so it doesn’t have any kind of emotional resonance,” said Princeton University political historian Julian Zelizer, who recently wrote a book on Carter. “That’s really targeting older voters, 50s and up.”
That’s why it’s much easier for Obama to, say, try to tie Romney to former President George W. Bush’s economic policies, as he did when he ran against Arizona Sen. John McCain for president four years ago. It’s the reason, as Dallek recalled, that Franklin Roosevelt was able to run against President Herbert Hoover’s economic policies in the 1930s.
Still, Republican strategist Ron Bonjean said that the Obama-Carter comparison may not work universally, but it resonates with the media and with older voters. “The public image of Jimmy Carter is one of a failed presidency," he said.
But what about the voters who know Carter better for his work after he left office. Carter was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002 for his humanitarian work, and he has played the role of elder statesman abroad to help negotiate treaties and advocate for U.S. citizens in trouble. A 2009 CNN News poll put his approval rating at 64 percent, a far cry from the 34-percent rating he had when he left office in January 1981.
Les Francis, a deputy assistant to Carter during his administration, argues that this is the lens through which most Americans view the former president.
“I think the regard for his presidency is enhanced as people look at it through the lens of his post-presidency,” Francis said. He said Romney’s dig at Carter in response to the bin Laden question was a “cheap shot.”
But Zelizer said Carter’s work in recent years is sometimes viewed as “controversial,” and that it comes with “baggage.” He has, for example, been a public critic of Israel, a U.S. ally, for its policy toward Palestinians.
The more dangerous area of comparison is between Obama’s and Carter’s domestic policies. Carter struggled with high inflation and a persistent recession during his entire presidency.
“I still think he remains a symbol of presidential failure and certainly for many Americans, certainly for Republicans, he is the image of a Democrat who couldn’t handle a crisis and a Democrat who was thoroughly unpopular,” Zelizer said. A comparison of Obama and Carter is more effective on the economy, because Carter was viewed as “a president who really couldn’t find an answer to an economic crisis, a period where everything was lagging.”
That’s what Romney sees when he calls the Obama White House “the most anti-small business administration I’ve seen probably since the Carter years,” as he did at a campaign stop in Chantilly, Va., on Wednesday. Then, he asked, “Who would’ve guessed we’d look back at the Carter years as the good ol' days, you know?”