Ghosts of presidents past

Mitt Romney likes to compare President Obama with President Carter, channelling memories of President Reagan.

Jimmy Carter became more respected, revered and perhaps even loved after he left the White House.  He took control at a difficult time. The US was just emerging from its Watergate nightmare, inflation was high, trust in central institutions was leaking away and a Middle East oil embargo hit the economy and hit it hard. If that wasn’t enough, the seizing of the US embassy in Tehran began a hostage crisis which ended only hours after Carter stepped down. 

In ‘retirement’ Jimmy Carter has become a respected international statesman a Nobel laureate and the head of an organisation that builds home for those on low incomes.

He has also found his name thrust into the heat of the latest US election campaign.

Mitt Romney would love to make the 2012 election a replay of 1980 – when conservative Republican icon, Ronald Reagan defeated Carter, as the Democrat tried to win a second term.

On the campaign trail, he and his vice-presidential candidate have invoked Carter’s name more than once.  On the economy, Paul Ryan addressed a crowd in Ohio, recalling Reagan’s enduring line from the 1980 presidential debates campaign, asking if voters felt better off now than four years ago: “If we fired Jimmy Carter, why would re-hire Barack Obama now?”   It’s a line of attack that has found its target in recent days, forcing the White House onto the defensive. 

Romney himself has used the comparison – suggesting “even Jimmy Carter” would have ordered the killing of Osama Bin Laden – and that Obama’s economic policies were causing similar hardship to America. “Who’d have thought we’d look back on the Carter years as the good old days?” is a line he’s used more than once. He has characterised his approach to foreign policy issues – such as a nuclear Iran – as similar to Reagan’s “peace through strength” idea. He argued that Reagan’s policy was the reason why the Iranians released the 52 US Embassy hostages just hours after Reagan was sworn in, ignoring the work done by Carter’s administration, his state department and smart Algerian diplomats. His campaign slogan “Believe in America” also echoes the Reagonite idea that the USA needs to repair its self-image

Further, Romney uses the 1980 comparison to reassure supporters because, like Reagan, despite a struggling economy which should play to his advantage, he is behind the incumbent in the polls. Reagan’s fortunes turned dramatically after the presidential debates, when ordinary Americans saw a different side of the former California governor and thought they could support him. 

However, if Romney is hoping for a huge turnaround in the three debates next month, he may be disappointed. Obama is still regarded as more likable than Mitt Romney. And polls tell us Carter was never regarded as very likeable. Reagan managed to hammer Carter for mishandling the economy and national security. Obama was in the White House when Osama bin Laden was killed. That is a huge plus on the national security issue, and not fertile ground for Republican attacks. Reagan presented himself as a strong leader, building the idea of Carter’s weakness, and with a background in Hollywood, he presented his case with an actor’s ease and assurance. Words that often describe Mitt Romney’s speaking performances are “wooden” and “stiff”. Former Reagan adviser Ed Rollins recently told The Washington Post that, even on Romney’s best day, “he’s not a Ronald Reagan”.

US politics has never been so polarised, minds made up so early in the election cycle, and that means there are fewer swing voters around. While Reagan would go on to create a new area of support in “Reagan Democrats”, there are likely to be fewer opportunities for the growth of “Romney Democrats”.

That is why harking back to the ghosts of presidents past is a risky strategy for Mitt Romney and the Republicans. Barack Obama is not Jimmy Carter – but Mitt Romney is no Ronald Reagan either.

Follow Alan Fisher on Twitter: @AlanFisher