McCain vs. Obama or Bush vs. Carter?

For a little while now Democrats have been saying that John McCain is trying to run for George W. Bush’s third term. When asked about this on TV recently, McCain countered that he thought Barack Obama was trying to run for Jimmy Carter’s second term. The attacks are clever insofar as both Bush and Carter are/were quite unpopular as their terms draw/drew to a close.

Interestingly, though, both Bush and Carter accomplished exactly what they wanted to during their administrations. Carter became President just a few years after Richard Nixon’s Watergate scandal was blown wide open and less than a decade after Lyndon Johnson’s lies about Vietnam were exposed. Carter promised that if he was elected, he would restore integrity to the White House. He promised that he would be honest with the American people and he delivered on that. Additionally, Carter wanted to promote peace in the world, and he was instrumental in the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty—Israel’s first such treaty with an Arab power. Finally, Carter pushed through the first civil service reform since the days of Chester Arthur (who was President from 1881-1884).

George W. Bush came into office wanting two things. He pushed through a big tax cut, and he wanted to show Washington and the country that he was, as he put it, “a uniter, not a divider.” His education reform and expansion of Medicare were much more palatable to liberal Democrats than to his conservative base, but he successfully pushed these items through Congress anyway. Bush was as shocked as the rest of America by the tragedy of 9/11. Afterwards, his goal was to make sure that such a thing would not happen in America again. More than six and a half years later, Bush has accomplished that goal, too.

But the latter days for both presidencies have not been kind. Both periods are known for high fuel costs, inflation, a weakened economy and new words to describe what’s going on—“stagflation” during the Carter years and “staycation” nowadays. These two Presidents also lost popularity for their handling of Middle East situations. And both men have also been hurt by their public persona. Carter came across as a pessimist, offering little encouragement to a nation that needed it. Public speaking has never been a Bush strength, and as public opinion has gone from enthusiastic to negative on the situation in Iraq, Bush has been unable to stem the tide. Even with dwindling casualty rates and an increase in law and order as a result of the surge, Bush has been unable to regain the public’s support on this issue.

This last area is where Obama and McCain can distinguish themselves from the two aforementioned Presidents. Obama’s message is much more optimistic than what Carter offered. McCain’s blunt and brash style is a marked contrast from Bush’s uncomfortable and halting manner of expressing himself.