Commentary

If Only Obama Were as Good as Carter

President Carter’s White House Diary, featuring excerpts from the one-term president’s private journal, hits the bookstores this week. (As if that wasn’t too much excitement to bear, Carter’s veep, Walter Mondale, releases his memoirs next month.

The diary’s release marks a good opportunity to revisit the Carter legacy, which isn’t nearly as god-awful as Carter-haters claim.

True, in an era of rising resentment toward Big Government, there’s plenty to resent about a president who gave us two new Cabinet departments (Energy and Education) and pioneered the role of presidential noodge, nagging Americans to turn down the thermostat and stop “piling up material goods.”

Too often, though, Carter critics descend into hyperbole. Last month, a Rightwingnews.com poll of conservative bloggers ranked Carter as “the worst American of all time” — beating Benedict Arnold and the Rosenbergs, spies who gave Stalin the A-bomb. In a recent column, Karl Rove bashed President Obama with a Carter comparison: “weak and radical at the same time.”

Carter was a weak president, but he was anything but radical.”

That’s half right — and half ridiculous. Carter was a weak president, but he was anything but radical. In fact, in Recarving Rushmore, his 2009 book re-ranking the presidents based on small-government criteria, Ivan Eland calls him “surprisingly the first conservative chief executive since Calvin Coolidge.”

An impishly provocative assessment — but there’s a lot to be said for it.

Conservatives condemn Carter’s ineffectual foreign policy, but his successful stewardship of the Camp David Accords made him the best presidential friend Israel’s ever had. At home, by serially deregulating airlines, trucking and railroads, the man from Plains broke special-interest strangleholds over transportation, helping usher in the dynamic, competitive economy of the ’80s.

To tame soaring inflation, Carter appointed tight-money man Paul Volcker as Federal Reserve chairman, and, at great political risk, grit his teeth through the deepening recession.

“Because of Carter’s fear of exacerbating inflation,” Eland adds, “he courageously refused to support an expensive proposal by Senator Edward Kennedy to provide federally funded national health insurance for all Americans.”

If all that hasn’t convinced you that our 39th president’s gotten a bad rap, here’s the clincher: Beer!

In 1978, hampered by post-Prohibition regulations, the United States had all of 44 breweries. “It doesn’t get any better than this,” the famous Old Milwaukee commercials assured us — and it wouldn’t have, if it weren’t for Jimmy Carter signing legislation legalizing craft brewing.

Today, “Joe Six-Pack” can choose from more than 1,400 domestic brewers. Conservative tipplers ought to raise a stein to Jimmy, thanking him that we’re not still swilling Stroh’s coast-to-coast.

Why, then, does our 39th president fare so poorly in the presidential rankings?

Carter-bashers seem obsessed with style over substance: that Mr. Rogers sweater, the “malaise” speech, Carter’s sanctimonious, unlovable public persona — the way he seemed to personify national decline.

People want the illusion of control: a comforting, competent father-protector at the helm of our national destiny — and Carter couldn’t fake that role as well as most presidents before or since.

Liberals downgrade the Carter presidency as one short on transformative visions: It brought no New Deals, no New Frontiers. Instead, at its best, the Carter legacy was one of workaday reforms that made significant improvements in American life: cheaper travel and cheaper goods for the middle class. Ironically enough, the president you’d never want to have a beer with brought you better beer — and much else besides.

Gene Healy is a vice president at the Cato Institute and the author of The Cult of the Presidency.