Leo Durocher, the baseball player and manager, once famously observed that “nice guys finish last”. His contention was that winning required one to get down in the dirt—and play dirty—when the situation required it.
I’ve been mulling over this comment as I consider the presidencies of Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama. Both had their successes and failures. Each was considered by their contemporaries to be very smart and able individuals—as well as very good and compassionate men. Each was, however, replaced by a successor who ran as their antithesis, promised an American economic renewal and shrinking of government power—and set about methodically erasing their imprint upon our nation.
Jimmy Carter’s first and only term found him clashing frequently with the entrenched powers in Washington and beyond, and his manner was frequently mocked by his political opponents, who characterized him as weak—and at times condescending. His presidency was sidetracked by the seizure of hostages at the American embassy in Tehran, and his chances for re-election were dealt a mortal blow by the catastrophic failure of the military rescue mission of those American hostages in 1980, which ended in an ignominious helicopter crash in the Iranian desert. Despite voter doubts about the bellicose temperament and character of his opponent in 1980, Ronald Reagan won a smashing victory, and over the course of his two terms in office put a deeply conservative stamp on domestic politics while pursuing a massive military buildup, high risk foreign policy adventures, and deregulatory actions that ushered in an unprecedented economic boom.
Unlike Jimmy Carter, Barack Obama was both embraced and celebrated by the entrenched establishment in Washington and beyond, and his smooth style and golden public speaking won him great favor with the nation’s media and entertainment elites. Seen as a new type of leader whose personal qualities transcended the muck of mere politics, he was able to inspire his allies—but he often foundered when the need for bare knuckle, backroom deal making was required to bully his opponents into submission. Gliding above the fray with a deeply cerebral (and at times condescending) manner, he often resorted to the use of executive orders rather than legislation to pursue his policies—certain that his legacy would be secured by the sheer infallibility of his ideas.
However, despite voter doubts about the bellicose temperament and character of his hand-picked successor’s opponent in 2016, Donald Trump won a smashing victory, and over the course of his (very possible) two terms in office will put a deeply conservative stamp on domestic politics while pursuing a massive military buildup, high risk foreign policy adventures, and deregulatory actions that have already ushered in an unprecedented economic boom.
Direct comparisons between the presidencies of Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama are difficult because they were operating in completely different political environments with completely different economic and strategic challenges. I still remember wrapping myself in a blanket in order to study in my freezing college dorm room because oil was so ruinously costly and scarce that heat was considered a luxury; it is a far different energy environment today—America is now one of the world’s largest exporters of oil. Old school corporate and industrial muscle still ruled during the Carter presidency; Barack Obama was the “information economy” President who claimed American manufacturing jobs were gone for good, so everyone now needed to learn how to code. Jimmy Carter still had to contend with a confrontational and expansionist Soviet Union; the revamped Russian Federation is a still powerful but far less threatening presence—now our eyes are turned to the dangers posed by China and North Korea.
Jimmy Carter has built an influential and successful ex-Presidency that focuses on peacemaking, the eradication of tropical diseases, and building—often with his own hands—houses for the poor and homeless. However, our airport in Washington is Reagan National, and we still refer to the “Reagan Revolution” as part of our political discourse; for all his good intentions, Jimmy Carter often now feels like a placeholder rather than a President.
It is too early to assess the legacy of President Obama, but his penchant for executive orders over the hurly-burly of legislation left many of his signature accomplishments subject to reversal at the stroke of a pen. Just sketching some of the highlights of Donald Trump’s first 500 days in office offers a jaw-dropping litany of stark policy changes:
• The Paris Climate Accord—Gone
• The Iran Nuclear Agreement—Gone
• The Trans-Pacific Partnership Trade Deal—Gone
• The Affordable Care Act Individual Mandate—Gone
In addition, conservative federal judges (including one Supreme Court Justice) have been confirmed in record numbers, and President Obama’s patient and cooperative approach to economic and military affairs has been replaced by an extraordinarily combative style that is challenging international norms regarding long-established trade agreements with our allies—and is driving nuclear North Korea to the negotiating table with open threats of “annihilation”. Commentators have now begun referring to “Trump Time” to describe the hyper-accelerated pace of so much of his Presidency so far.
It is far too soon to evaluate the ultimate political impact of Barack Obama’s two terms in office, but it is perhaps not too early to wonder if his legacy will consist almost wholly of being our first African-America President. The anger that so many liberals feel over President Trump’s reversals of President Obama’s accomplishments is perhaps more and more tinged with fear. His brutal—and at times brutish—Presidential style has already reshaped the political landscape of our nation in ways that will be felt for generations to come, and the prospect of a second term—or even the mere completion of his first—fills his political opponents with terror.
Nice—Donald Trump is not. He may, however, be the living incarnation of Leo Durocher’s aphorism, and he could condemn Barack Obama to Jimmy Carter’s fate: a very nice guy whose Presidential legacy was gleefully stomped on by his successor—and then discarded.