Over the course of this campaign, I've compared Barack Obama to Adlai Stevenson in 1952, John Kennedy in 1960, and Ronald Reagan in 1980, offering the possibilities of transformational leadership. There is also the possibility he could be another Jimmy Carter. Time will tell.
In reading Carter Chief of Staff Hamilton Jordan's obituary, and retrospectives on his life, I am reminded what a brilliant primary campaign Jordan and Carter ran, as Washington outsiders. But then, when they got to Washington, the very strengths that got Carter elected proved to be weaknesses. The PBS American Experience website recalls:
The refusal to play by the rules of Washington contributed to the Carter administration's difficult relationship with Congress. Jordan and Frank Moore, in particular, feuded with leading Democrats like House Speaker Tip O'Neill from the start. Unreturned phone calls, insults (both real and imagined), and an unwillingness to trade political favors soured many on Capitol Hill and tangibly affected the president's ability to push through his ambitious agenda.
"There was an innocence, and an arrogance, about the idea that you could run the country with your Atlanta statehouse team -- you just couldn't," concludes historian Roger Wilkins. "Every president brings his people, but most presidents bring people who are seasoned people who really understand Washington and know how to move around the city. That just wasn't true of Jimmy Carter. You hate to say it, but it was often, it seemed, very amateurish."
The Obama team needs to think long and hard about how they're going to avoid the pitfalls that befell Jimmy Carter both in the campaign -- he lost a 20-point lead -- and the presidency. Carter was never accepted by the Washington establishment, and was widely viewed as ineffectual.
I am reassured by Newsweek's report that Obama "has a much more disciplined, focused team than Kerry (or Hillary Clinton), whose organizations were prone to infighting and lacked strong leadership." Obama's campaign manager David Plouffe, is said to be both a good strategist and a good manager (Jordan wasn't a good manager). Obama's chief strategist, David Axelrod, 53, is far more seasoned than Jordan or Carter's other top advisor, Jody Powell were as early thirty-somethings.
Unlike Carter, Obama doesn't micro-manage. I remember reading reports that Carter was a hard-taskmaster who stared grimly at his staff and rarely offered praise. He was more feared and respected than liked. Obama, Newsweek reports, remains liked as well as respected by his staff.
But Obama and Carter are/were largely unknown -- they had not been on the national scene long when nominated. It's both a strength and a weakness.