Welcome Back Carter

Matt Towery

4/9/2009 12:01:00 AM - Matt Towery

Remember the hit 1970s TV sitcom "Welcome Back, Kotter"? I can almost see Vinnie Barbarino and the "Sweat Hogs," plus their teacher, "Mr. Kotter." I see them joining with the real-life president of the day, with his cardigan sweater. They're all morphing in my mind into today's "Dancing With The Stars," "American Idol" and another president, whose style of dress is more that of a John Kennedy or Ronald Reagan.

So what will it be? Will Barack Obama become the Kennedy or Reagan of our generation, or should we start singing the tune to the show that launched John Travolta into superstardom?" That '70s refrain "Welcome back, welcome back, welcome back."

The similarities between Obama and Jimmy Carter were startlingly similar, even prior to Obama taking office. Both men had relatively brief careers as elected officials before entering the White House.

Carter had served in the Georgia state Senate just four years before later becoming governor of what at that time was a mid-sized Southern state. He was term-limited to four years in office, but managed to emerge as the bracing "fresh face" that captured the Iowa caucus and ultimately the Democratic presidential nomination in 1976. He was elected to the presidency during a time that had seen the nation torn apart by Watergate, inflation, an on-going energy crisis, a deep recession and the aftermath of a costly war. Sound familiar?

"Welcome back, welcome back, welcome back."

There's no need to recount Obama's prior experience in government or the circumstances and mood of the country when, this past January, he took office. What really matters are the actions and words we've witnessed in his nearly three months since taking the oath.

If you will recall, President Obama early on was lamenting the dire circumstances our nation faced economically, to the point that his advisors pointedly suggested that he was putting the nation into a deeper funk.

It took Carter until two years into his presidency to tell Americans that the nation suffered from "a crisis of confidence," in a speech that later became dubbed the "American Malaise" address. In a matter of days he, too, started backtracking from his gloomy pronouncement.

To prove that he was "in touch with the people," Carter held the first -- and one of the last -- "national radio call-in broadcasts" in March of his first year in office. While the technology has changed, the gimmick hasn't. Obama held his "national online townhall meeting," also in March of his first year.

Both presidents used energy reform as a central issue around which they built their earliest initiatives as president. Carter gave his first address on the nation's energy crisis and the need to move to energy alternatives in February of his first year. Before that first year was done, Carter was at war with the big energy companies, declaring that the oil companies were guilty of "the biggest rip-off in history."

Now, with banks, insurance companies and automakers collapsing before the nation's very eyes, President Obama nevertheless chose to make energy, and a new energy policy, the centerpiece of not only his stimulus package to rescue the nation economically but as part of his "budget." He put forth a concept to mandate that energy companies pay for permits for carbon emissions. Again, this is a policy designed to force the nation toward energy alternatives, even if they can't adequately replace traditional sources, and even if they drive up the cost to individuals and their employers.

"Welcome back, welcome back, welcome back."

Perhaps the eeriest resemblance between the Carter presidency and the early days of the Obama administration is foreign policy. In an effort to mollify the Soviet Union, Carter, giving the commencement address at Notre Dame in May of his first year in office, declared that America suffered from "an inordinate fear of communism." Carter pushed for arms control agreements with the Soviets, did away with the B-1 Bomber, and put a halt to production of the neutron bomb. In "appreciation" for his efforts, the Soviets rolled into Afghanistan and took over that country on Christmas Day, 1979.

During his recent trip abroad, President Obama made it clear that America "is not at war with Islam." Let's hope the feeling is mutual. Just as Carter cut out the B-1 and other staples of our defense system of his era, President Obama's administration has announced plans to drop future production of the F-22 fighter. He has also faced bipartisan criticism for proposing cuts in missile defense spending. And all this in the same month North Korea lobbed a test rocket that could prove an ability to deliver nuclear warheads to our allies or, one day, to our own nation. (Alaska is already afraid.)

Obama doesn't have the cardigan sweater, and much of his rhetoric and some of his actions may prove to be far more like Kennedy or Reagan. But I'm starting to get the feeling that by next winter, I'll need my cardigan sweater to watch reruns of "Welcome Back, Kotter."