The Carterization of Barack Obama's presidency, a largely self-inflicted debacle, has overtaken America's once popular and trusted young chief executive with stunning, startling rapidity.
Suddenly, 53 percent of Americans surveyed are telling pollsters they don't think Obama is honest or trustworthy, according to the latest CNN/ORC poll. And Obama scores even lower in questions of competence; only 40 percent now believe he can manage the government effectively. Obama's lowest-ever polls were taken just after the disastrous failures of the rollout of his signature healthcare program - including revelations that Obama misled Americans when he had promised repeatedly that those who liked their old health plans and doctors could keep them under his so-called Obamacare program. Most can, but some can't.
But this week, we are seeing a rather bizarre twist in Obama's presidency, even as public concerns about his competence are reminiscent of concerns about President Jimmy Carter during the economic downturn of the late 1970s. For, Obama - who, like Carter, arrived in Washington as a veritable political newcomer with no international credentials - finds his presidential legacy entwined in, of all things, an Iranian crisis. Of course, Obama's Iranian crisis is nothing like Jimmy Carter's hostage crisis (which began in 1979 when Iranian rebels seized the U.S. embassy and its staff in Tehran). Obama and five nuclear allies forged an historic but very limited interim pact with Iran's rulers and five of America's nuclear nation allies that is aimed at trying to halt Iran's never-admitted, but never-doubted virulent quest to develop a nuclear arsenal.
Not since Carter's hostage crisis has Iran been willing to take even this limited diplomatic step. But we must not fool ourselves. This is interim pact isn't a hit of a diplomatic (let alone nuclear) reset button - it is just a tap on the pause button. It sets terms form six months of negotiations toward a comprehensive accord, with no assurance any long-term agreement can be reached.
But the future of the turbulent Middle East is now up for negotiation. And that means the Americans and the world must hope that Obama and his diplomatic team can perform with the competence and trust that it turned out they did not have in shaping his healthcare legacy. Israel, of course, but also Saudi Arabia, have been sharply critical of the new Iranian nuclear pause agreement. And in Washington, Democrats as well as Republicans have been sharply critical of interim pact. Members of Congress have begun drafting a new round of sanctions, despite strong objections from the Obama administration and bipartisan experts including Ford and G. H. W. Bush national security adviser Brent Scowcroft and Carter's national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski.
In the new interim pact, Iran makes some promises that are geared at preventing its uranium from being enriched to anywhere near the 90 percent considered weapons grade. Iran promises that over the next six months, it will not to enrich its uranium above 5 percent, will not increase the enrichment of its existing 3.5 percent uranium, and will dilute its uranium that is near 20 (that's the level it supposedly needs for medical isotopes).
There is no doubt that Iran agreed to this interim pact because of the dire economic hardships imposed by the international economic sanctions imposed by the United States and its allies. Under the new pact, Iran will get some relief from just a portion of the tough sanctions imposed by the international community - netting Iran some $6 billion over six months.
But Iran's Supreme Ruler, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has reportedly insisted that Iran must maintain the "right" to enrich uranium in the future. Do you need a translator on that? Iran wouldn't need this "right" to enrich if its nuclear programs were really just for electric power and medicine, as Iran claims.
But don't overlook another powerful force in Iran that the nuclear experts frequently forget or underestimate. Many thousands of Iranians cheered the announcement of the interim pact. Iran has a huge middle class that is fond of the culture of America and the west and has suffered from life under economic sanctions. In Iran's recent elections, they overwhelmingly rejected a number of hardliners to elect the more moderate Hassan Rouhani as president.
In the next six months, Iran may discover that the joys of living in a world community are better than returning to a life of sanctions imposed because of their supreme ruler's nuclear pursuit. And we may discover whether Iran's western-yearning middle class can possibly moderate the self-inflicted pain of a continued nuclear quest.
Meanwhile, we may also discover whether our president can possibly regain the competence we once thought he had. And whether he can re-earn our trust.
Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.