McClanahan: Obama turning into another Jimmy Carter

What we're seeing in Washington these days is beginning to look like Jimmy Carter II.

Carter, like Barack Obama, started out with the idea of stimulating the economy. His plan was to give every taxpayer $50, then throw in a few billion for tax cuts and public works programs. Simple, right?

Wrong. Within a month, the package grew from $20 billion to more than $31 billion — a significant amount in the 1970s.

In April of his first year in office, Carter finally scrapped the whole idea. By then he was fatally diminished, his authority substantially eroded.

With the Obama administration, a similar unraveling is well under way. The sense is growing that he has grossly overplayed his hand.

Like Carter, Obama looks increasingly like a president out of step with the times. Like Carter, there is a large gap between what voters expected based on the measured and moderate tone of his campaign and what began unfolding after his inauguration. Obama ran as a centrist, but he is governing from the left.

In one recent poll, support for Obama's $787 billion stimulus package had dropped to 34 percent. Seventy-one percent agreed Obama had increased the size of the federal deficit. His overall approval rating in the Quinnipiac poll has fallen to 50 percent from 57 percent in June.

In another Quinnipiac poll, nearly 75 percent of respondents didn't believe Obama's pledge that the federal deficit would fall because of health care reform.

In an NPR poll, a plurality of Americans opposed Obama's health care efforts. In a recent Rasmussen poll, those who strongly disapproved of the president's performance outnumbered those who strongly supported him by 11 percentage points.

The cap-and-trade monster — a ruinous de facto tax for anyone using energy — won't make it through the Senate in its present form, if at all. The original Cash for Clunkers program, which was supposed to continue through November, ran out of money in days.

No wonder many voters don't trust the Democratic Congress to remake the health care system. They fear that in a few years, they will be shoved into the sort of inflexible, infuriating, one-size-fits-all sort of arrangement for which the federal government is famous.

As in the Carter years, both the White House and Congress are now dominated by Democrats from the left wing of the party. As Michael Barone wrote in "Our Country," liberals from this tradition are inclined to seek "economic redistribution by always asking more" — without worrying too much about whether they might be approaching the point at which "the public sector would start to squeeze the life out of the private sector."

More voters are saying, in effect: That point is fast approaching. Many legitimately fear that if not stopped, Obama and the Democratic Congress will take this country well beyond that point.

It's not too late for Obama to make a major adjustment. Bill Clinton's initial months were equally turbulent. He was savvy enough to make a mid-course correction — but it came only after the election of a Republican Congress. On his present course, Obama is making that eventuality increasingly likely.

McClanahan is a member of the Kansas City Star editorial board. E-mail him at