Washington Matters


Obama's Katrina? Try Carter's Iran

Mark Willen

Obama aides ought to be looking at 1979, not 2005, for lessons.



Republicans have been quick to point to the BP oil spill, already the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history, as Obama’s Katrina. They’d like nothing more than to get revenge for the drubbing President Bush took for his lack of action and empathy with the victims of the hurricane that devastated New Orleans and much of the Gulf region and crippled the rest of his presidency. The White House is worried about that happening and doing everything it can to learn the lessons of Katrina and prevent a rerun.

But to me, watching the devastation in the Gulf of Mexico and Obama’s helpless response brings back more memories of Jimmy Carter and the Iran hostage crisis. As one who had a close-up view of that long-running event (I was a junior reporter covering the State Department when an Iranian mob took 52 U.S. hostages on Nov. 4, 1979, and held most of them for 444 days), I vividly remember the television logos adding up the days (then a relatively new innovation) thereby capturing the public’s concern and growing dissatisfaction.

Although it was a different kind of crisis, the similarities are stark and instructive. At first, it was judged an event that no one in government could have prevented. That gradually changed as questions emerged about why Washington didn’t have a better handle on the risks. No one had a ready solution for fixing the problem, but with each passing day, people wondered why the president and his aides couldn’t come up with an answer. Instead of accepting that the government was powerless, people got angry. They hated feeling the U.S. was too weak; they wanted and expected the government to make it go away. Finger-pointing followed, and eventually Carter launched a rescue mission against the odds. It failed, with U.S. helicopters crashing into each other, adding significantly to the notion that the Carter government was simply incompetent.

I see all of that happening again, and I’m reminded of the hopeless feelings of 1979 every time another BP effort fails or another TV logo shows the count of days or the gallons of oil spilled. Even with the benefit of time (almost 31 years), I don’t know that anyone has come up with an answer for what Carter should or could have done differently, other than to prevent it from happening in the first place. That also seems the case with the BP spill.

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The hostage crisis ultimately cost Carter a second term, being the biggest of several reasons why the American public welcomed Ronald Reagan to the White House in 1980. It also colored everything Carter did in his last year in office.

So far, surprisingly, the polls are inconclusive on the whether the spill is hurting Obama, or at least that’s the nuanced conclusion of Nate Silver, one of the few analysts who really understands how to use polls. Obama, of course, is getting plenty of criticism, but it’s largely coming from those who didn’t like him before the spill. As always, independents hold the key to Obama’s reelection hopes, and his response and the success or failure of the cleanup could have a decisive effect. In the meantime, key Democratic and Republican strategists might find it useful to take another look at the Carter case.




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