The specter of Jimmy Carter is back.
Prompted by the ongoing crisis in the Middle East, Republicans are drawing comparisons between former President Carter and President Barack Obama. Their argument is that both adopted policies that were weak, vague and unsuccessful, and both were unwilling or unable to project American power to challenge menacing Islamists.
Up to this week, GOP leaders have used Carter comparisons mostly to undermine Obama on economic issues. Now foreign policy and national security have been added to the mix, propelled by the murders of U.S. Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens and three other U.S. officials, along with mobs rioting in the streets of several Middle Eastern countries.
One point of comparison is the Iranian hostage crisis of 1979-1980, in which militants seized 52 Americans at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and held them hostage for a year, which made Carter seem ineffectual. He lost his bid for re-election to Republican challenger Ronald Reagan in 1980.
"President Obama has clearly surpassed former President Jimmy Carter and his actions during the Iranian Embassy crisis as the weakest and most ineffective person to ever occupy the White House," said Rep. Allen West, a Florida Republican, in an interview with the Huffington Post.
Added Republican Oklahoma Sen. James Inhofe: "These attacks are sadly reminiscent of the 1979 attack on our embassy in Tehran under Carter's watch." Writing in Washington's The Hill newspaper, Inhofe added: "In June 2009, just months after Obama traveled the globe in what some have dubbed an Apology Tour, Obama traveled to Cairo [which is] now a vastly different city. The once promising Arab Spring has been hijacked by extremists who seek to advance their radical agenda and stand in the way of democracy in the region."
On the conservative-oriented Fox News Thursday, commentator Sean Hannity showed clips from 1980 in which Carter condemned Reagan in words similar to the ones Obama used against challenger Mitt Romney this week. Carter told the Democratic National Convention in 1980 that Reagan followed the dictum, "Shoot first and ask questions later." Obama told CBS Wednesday, "Governor Romney seems to have a tendency to shoot first and aim later."
For many weeks, Romney has tried to link Carter and Obama as failures in strengthening the economy. Romney has called Obama's presidency "the most anti-small business administration I've seen probably since Carter." And Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, Romney's vice-presidential running mate, has said, "The president has no record to run on. In fact, every president since the Great Depression who asked Americans to send them into a second term could say that you are bettter off today than you were four years ago, except for Jimmy Carter and for President Barack Obama."
It's unclear how effective these comparisons will be. Carter's presidency ended 32 years ago, and many voters simply aren't familiar with his time in office. Just as important, Carter has become a respected figure since his presidency because of his charitable works and international peace-making and humanitarian missions.
Carter got a very positive response in Des Moines Thursday when he defended his use of negotiations instead of war to solve international problems.
He said that in 1979 some of his advisers urged him to punish Iran militarily for taking the hostages, and he was told, "If you go to war, you're kind of a hero. If you stay out of war and prefer peace, you're too weak."
He did order a rescue attempt that failed. But he said a broader military strike would have killed tens of thousands of innocent Iranian civilians, so he resorted to negotiations, which were ultimately successful.
"Many people still look on that as a symbol that I was a weak president," he said. "But sometimes it takes more courage to preserve the peace than to go to war." At that point, many in the audience at Drake University gave him a sustained ovation.
Ken Walsh covers the White House and politics for U.S. News. He writes the daily blog, "Ken Walsh's Washington," for usnews.com, and is the author of "The Presidency" column for the U.S. News Weekly. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Facebook and Twitter.