Early in the malaise era of former President Barack Obama’s administration — when it became clear he had no solution to the financial crisis of 2008 except to blame Republicans and that his solution to national health care, which would eventually become known by the eponym Obamacare, was a thoroughgoing disaster — one of the funnier T-shirts invoked the disco era in more ways than one.
The shirt, as I recall, was earth-tone brown and was colored in other ’70s-tastic hues like mustard yellow and Buccaneers-helmet orange. The visage of the then-president, frowning, appeared above a message written in the font used for the title sequence of the 1975-1979 sitcom “Welcome Back, Kotter.”
There was a slight alteration, however: It now read, “Welcome Back, Carter.”
Jimmy Carter’s four years in the White House, from 1977 to 1981, is typically used as a yardstick by which we measure everything that goes wrong when we elect an ineffectual Democrat. However, the comparison with Obama wasn’t a 1:1 match, for various reasons. Unfortunately, a decade and change later, we have a reason to resurrect the T-shirt.
Inflation is skyrocketing, America is losing its global prestige through a series of geopolitical disasters, most of the president’s non-economic agenda is stalled (although that’s probably for the best), the administration wants us to plunge into a new era of energy austerity and the guy at the helm seems to have zero control over the ship.
Polls indicate Americans aren’t particularly happy about this state of affairs. However, when a Fox News crew hit the streets of Nashville, Tennessee, for a video posted by the GOP War Room YouTube account Saturday, they were able to find a guy who identified at least one American who’s thrilled about where we are in 2021.
“The happiest guy in the world right now is Jimmy Carter,” the man said, “because now he’s out of the history books for being the worst president ever.”
Now, it’s worth pointing out a certain amount of recency bias in naming Carter the worst president ever.
Is Joe Biden worse than Jimmy Carter?
In keeping with the “Welcome Back, Kotter” theme, the namesake of the institution Gabe Kaplan’s “sweathogs” attended in the sitcom — James Buchanan High School — is oft considered the worst president ever by historians.
Buchanan, the 15th president, served one term, from 1857 to 1861. As History.com points out, he managed to alienate both pro- and anti-slavery forces, and his inept handling of the issue is considered to have been a catalyst for the Civil War.
Buchanan’s mess was cleaned up by the man widely considered to be our greatest president, Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln’s biggest mistake, however, was nominating a Southern Democrat who had stayed loyal to the Union, Andrew Johnson, as his vice president during the 1864 election as a show of national unity. Johnson showed up for Lincoln’s inauguration on March 4, 1865, ragingly drunk and gave a rambling speech more than two times longer than it was supposed to be — one which was only interrupted when Hannibal Hamlin, Lincoln’s outgoing veep, tugged on Johnson’s coattails, according to the National Parks Conservation Association.
A few months later, the Tennessee lush became president upon Lincoln’s assassination, and it went downhill from his inaugural speech. Johnson made a botch of Reconstruction, showing undue favor to the South and allowing former Confederate states to enact “black codes” — which would eventually coalesce into the segregation system we now know as Jim Crow.
There are other candidates. Franklin Pierce, the 14th president, managed to combine the worst characteristics of the above two gentlemen; not only did his policies hasten the Civil War, his alcoholism inspired his critics to call him the “hero of many a well-fought bottle.” Warren G. Harding, the 29th president, once said, “I am not fit for this office and never should have been here.” He wasn’t lying; when he died in 1923, he left behind a dumpster-fire legacy of corruption and ineffectuality.
However, the fact Carter wasn’t a dipsomaniac that led us into the Civil War only makes his presidency better by comparison, not good — and it doesn’t make it much better, at that. Moreover, the parallels with Joe Biden’s first year in office are many.
Both Carter and Biden were elected to save us from long national nightmares. In Carter’s case, it was Watergate. In Biden’s case, it was COVID and mean tweets.
Carter promised America he’d never lie to us. At first glance, Biden doesn’t fit that bill — in fact, he’s enough a fibber one could argue he fits the definition of a compulsive liar. However, I’m willing to concede there’s the potential the president no longer knows what’s reality and what isn’t. To quote the phenomenological TV sitcom philosopher George Costanza, “It’s not a lie if you believe it.”
Both Carter and Biden got elected on being devoted Christians — and in a way which was out of step with their party. In 1976, Carter’s team had to explain terms like “born-again” and “evangelical” to a media used to mainline Protestants and Catholics. Biden, meanwhile, bills himself as a “devout Catholic” in a Democratic Party where any demonstration of faith is considered outré.
And yet, both have been terminal disappointments on the defining issue of the Christian politician: abortion. During the 1976 campaign, when a possibility of a constitutional amendment overturning Roe v. Wade was still very much a possibility, Carter came out in opposition to it.
Biden, meanwhile, supports killing the Hyde Amendment — a rule which prohibits the federal funding of abortion — and has made it clear his Department of Justice will be loosed upon any state that tries to qualify a woman’s right to abortion on demand and has even said he doesn’t agree that life begins at conception, a central tenet of Catholic teaching.
Then there’s stagflation — a combination of economic stagnation combined with inflation. It crippled Carter’s presidency and it’s crippling Biden’s already; a Wall Street Journal editorial published Thursday called the last few months “The Summer of Stagflation.”
Carter’s presidency was crippled by the loss of American prestige abroad. In a 2010 piece for the Heritage Foundation, national security expert James Jay Carafano wrote, “Carter had tried accommodating America’s enemies. He cut back on defense. He made humility the hallmark of American diplomacy.
“Our foes responded with aggression: Iranian revolutionaries danced in the rubble of the U.S. Embassy; the Soviets sponsored armed insurgencies and invaded Afghanistan.”
That seems prescient, even if the events are a bit jumbled.
In 2021, Afghan revolutionaries danced in the rubble of the U.S. embassy. The Soviets are no longer around — thanks, in no small part, to the man who defeated Jimmy Carter in the 1980 election. Biden, however, is now placating Iranian hardliners, practically begging Tehran to allow the United States to return to the flawed Iran nuclear deal negotiated under Obama. According to the Times of Israel, “Biden has promised that if his administration reenters the Iran nuclear deal, Washington won’t withdraw from the pact unless the Islamic Republic clearly violates its terms.”
This comes less than two weeks after Iran reportedly launched a strike against U.S. forces in Syria:
This is a big deal, but nobody seems to care much:
– x5 #Iranian explosives-laden drones were launched into al-Tanf in SE #Syria last week — hitting a U.S. troop facility in what DOD has called “a complex, coordinated & deliberate attack.”https://t.co/IGlzaCFGN9 pic.twitter.com/Ep08bQiy2u
— Charles Lister (@Charles_Lister) October 26, 2021
And this isn’t even touching on China, which has been flexing its muscles now that Biden is in the White House.
Like Carter, Biden is pledging us to energy austerity, promising to cut U.S. carbon emissions in half by 2030 — an unlikely goal, and an expensive one if it’s met. Carter had gas lines, Biden has supply chain issues. Carter had a brother named Billy who tried to get rich off his own brand of beer, Biden has a son named Hunter trying to get rich off of his finger paintings.
In other words, Barack Obama’s presidency — a disappointment in so many ways — didn’t mirror the 1970s malaise that was Jimmy Carter’s reign in the White House.
Biden has done something that’s almost impossible, too: He’s crammed Carter-level failures into just a few months. Despite White House press secretary Jen Psaki giving the president glowing praise, the poll numbers don’t lie and Biden’s been under water for months — and for exactly the same reasons the man from Plains, Georgia, failed.
We wasted the “Welcome Back, Carter” shirts a decade and change too early, however.
The good news, I think, is that we can resurrect the joke tees. After all, if people forgot enough about the other failures of the Obama administration that they were willing to elect its vice president, they probably forgot about the shirts, too.