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Obama needs to show he's on top of crises

By Julian Zelizer, Special to CNN
  • Julian Zelizer: How presidents respond to crises has a big impact on their standing
  • Obama is confronting world crises as well as joblessness at home, he writes
  • Carter handled crises behind scenes, he says, but was hurt by the perception he didn't
  • Zelizer: Obama needs a clear crisis-response roadmap to keep public confidence

Editor's note: Julian E. Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author of "Jimmy Carter," published by Times Books, and editor of a book assessing former President George W. Bush's administration, published by Princeton University Press.

(CNN) -- Major crises can inflict great political damage on U.S. presidents. Regardless of all the weapons that come with the office, presidents throughout American history have discovered that they can quickly be overwhelmed when events spin out of control.

The ways in which presidents respond to these crises have a profound impact on their political standing.

President Obama is still in a good political position for the 2012 election. Most of the Republicans who have toyed with the possibility of running would be candidates with significant vulnerabilities. And the Tea Party's power among Republicans could alienate moderate voters.

But over the past few months, Obama has had to confront crises at a dizzying pace. And these events swirled against the background of a chronically high unemployment rate that has been the most frustrating challenge that this administration has faced. Some critics say Obama has not been leading in these areas, that he is shifting his position as events unfold and that he lacks a strong plan for handling these multiple situations.

These perceptions frustrated Carter and his advisers because, in fact, the president was working on each of these issues.
--Julian Zelizer
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The revolutions in the Middle East, and the authoritarian crackdowns in response have left the most volatile region in the world even more combustible than before. The U.S. is now part of a coalition using force to try to stop Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi from violently suppressing insurgents in his country. The tragic earthquake and tsunami in Japan caused enormous human and physical damage. The ensuing nuclear crisis and economic aftershocks are severe. And these are just the crises that we already know about. Nobody knows what lurks around the corner.

Jimmy Carter learned how politically damaging these kinds of crises could be -- particularly once the public came to believe that the White House didn't seem to be in control of events.

In 1979 and 1980, the nation was facing a different set of challenges. In 1979, OPEC imposed a second oil embargo on the U.S. that made fuel prices skyrocket and caused long lines at gas stations. In November, Iranian students who were part of a rebellion against the government, and who were furious that Carter had allowed the Shah to enter the U.S. for medical treatment, stormed into the U.S. Embassy in Teheran and took the Americans inside as hostages. One month later, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. Carter told his Chief of Staff Hamilton Jordan that, "This is more serious, Hamilton. (It) is deliberate aggression that calls into question détente and the way we have been doing business with the Soviets for the past decade."

The economy was in terrible shape as well. Stagflation -- a toxic combination of inflation and unemployment -- hurt living conditions through much of the decade. As far as most Americans were concerned, nothing was going right for Carter.

These perceptions frustrated Carter and his advisers because, in fact, the president was working on each of these issues. He had appointed Paul Volcker as the chairman of the Federal Reserve. Volcker took aggressive steps to curb inflation.

Behind the scenes, Carter worked hard to negotiate an end to the Iran hostage crisis. While his one military rescue effort failed miserably, he remained hard at work using third-party contacts to try to get the Americans released.

Carter also responded to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan by calling for substantial increases in defense spending, and he announced that the Persian Gulf would become the focus of national security policy. Carter also decided that the United States would boycott the Moscow Olympics.

Carter was well aware of the political stakes involved. In his memoirs, Carter recalled it was impossible to disentangle the Iranian issue from the election: "The most gripping and politically important (issue) was still the holding of American hostages in Iran. Earlier in the year, I had not considered the hostage crisis politically damaging to me. In many ways, it had helped rally the public to my side.

"Now, however, the grief I felt over the hostages' continued incarceration was mixed with the realization that the election might also be riding on their freedom." Carter didn't fully grasp the growing frustration among the public.

The public turned on the president. Americans saw a commander in chief who seemed to be holed up in the White House without apparent progress being made in Iran. Conservatives and liberals criticized Carter for his response to the Soviet Union's war in Afghanistan. They said that he had not been prepared for this action, nor did he seem to have a clear vision of how to respond.

Conservatives said he was not doing enough while Sen. Ted Kennedy blasted the "helter-skelter" nature of his response. High rates of unemployment left many voters to think that the administration didn't have a plan to bring back the kind of economic security Americans had enjoyed in previous decades.

Ronald Reagan defeated Carter in the 1980 election. The Iranians released the hostages the same day Reagan was inaugurated. After Carter met with the released Americans in an emotional moment in Germany, he flew back to the United States with Hamilton Jordan. Thinking about what had happened, he told Jordan, "Ham, if we had had a little luck back in March or April and gotten them out then, we might be flying back to Washington instead of Plains."

As Carter discovered, public perceptions of a president in crisis matter very much in American politics. President Obama's cool and deliberative style has been hugely effective at different moments of his career. The president's strategy has been to ride out political turmoil and fluctuations in international conditions without appearing frantic.

Yet there comes a point when voters want to know that the president has some control over events, rather than events controlling the president. Obama will need to provide Americans with a clearer sense that he does have a roadmap to handle these multiple challenges or it is possible that voters could lose confidence in his being able to do so. This would give Republicans, who are struggling politically, the opening they need.

The opinions in this commentary are solely those of Julian Zelizer.

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