The first president I remember is Nixon. The first president I remember taking office is Ford. But Carter’s was the first presidential election I remember, being 10 at the time. I think, for a while afterward, I remember thinking that Nixon was a Republican, so Republicans must be bad. I wanted the smiling guy from Georgia to be president. However, I was eight years from casting my first vote. (Mondale. And I’ve been kicking myself over that one ever since.)
Carter came into the White House as an outsider, portraying himself as a citizen president. It was what America needed after Johnson and Nixon, and especially after the shattering of trust that followed Watergate. Unfortunately, that doomed Carter’s administration from the start. He was very forward thinking on several issues. Among his initiatives were energy independence and national healthcare. However, Carter also took hardline stances with the Soviet Union, often accused by European leaders of unnecessarily provoking them while turning around and normalizing relations with Beijing.
Carter’s biggest problem, one that later plagued George W. Bush and dogs Barack Obama, is his relations with Congress. Bush, at least, got along with his party, but failed to establish rapport with Democratic leadership. Former Senator Bob Dole has accused Obama of not only the same with Republicans, but also failing to build bridges within his own party. That describes Jimmy Carter to a T.
You have to admire Carter for sticking to his common man narrative, though. By 1977, when he took the oath, Americans had had enough of Washington insiders and veterans. And Carter, a two-term governor of Georgia, was tired of Congress’s intractability when his state needed Washington to lead, follow, or get out of the way. It’s a frequent complaint of governors both current and former, including Carter’s eventual opponent and successor, Ronald Reagan.
But an outsider cannot push Congress the way someone with connections can. You are dealing with 535 men and women each beholden to their own constituents, each with their own network of Washington insiders, and each heavily lobbied any number of interests from environmentalists to the gun lobby. Without a connection to any of them, a president is doomed to failure. It’s a wonder he ever got the Panama Canal Treaty done.
Carter did have two things to his credit heading into the 1980 election. The first, less noticeable because of other factors and for bearing fruit so late in his presidency, was an economy on the rebound. It wasn’t quite morning in America yet, but a few rays were showing in October, 1980. Despite pressure from the left to implement wage and price controls, Carter’s economic team attacked inflation by raising interest rates to match, which eventually slowed the double-digit rates, something we haven’t seen even during the Great Recession. Second, and most notably, Carter brokered the deal between Begin and Sadat that saw Israel withdraw from the Sinai. It was a watershed moment in Middle East relations that no president since has been able to duplicate. (Clinton came very close in the 1990’s, only to have that work undone when Yitzak Rabin was assassinated.) Those two things alone might have earned Carter a second term, except…
The Iranian hostage crisis blindsided Carter. Poor intelligence in Tehran suggested the Shah, not the most noble of leaders, was stable, and revolution was unlikely. That was 1977. In 1978, the Ayatollah Khomeni returned to Iran and swept the Shah aside almost effortlessly. By the end of the year, militants supporting the new regime would take the US embassy and hold fifty-two Americans hostage for 444 days. The regime demonstrated its duplicity when it complained that Canada illegally spirited away a dozen Americans who slipped out of the embassy as it fell. At the time, perception that Carter did nothing, coupled with a failed military rescue operation, battered his already growing reputation as a weak and ineffective president. Even a series of gaffes on the part of Reagan during the 1980 campaign could not restore confidence in Carter.
Even then, he might have had a chance had he not faced what is now the last serious attempt to unseat a sitting president for his party’s nomination. Ted Kennedy ran for the nomination, a sign that the Democrats themselves were dissatisfied with the president they had seated. A similar effort by Reagan badly wounded Gerald Ford’s campaign, putting Carter in the White House.
Carter is looked upon as a failed president, and to some extent, that’s true. He had Woodrow Wilson’s rigid mindset with no Col. Edward House or Edith Wilson to build bridges for him. Like Wilson, he learned diplomacy on the fly. Unlike Wilson, Carter learned and adapted to the point where he earned a reputation as America’s best ex-president. Unlike Nixon, who wrote and lectured, mainly to rehabilitate his legacy, Carter simple did. He went to the Middle East before the Persian Gulf War to try and broker a settlement. Presidents Bush (41) and Clinton sent him with UN missions to observe elections. And much to the chagrin of President Bush (43), he visited Cuba to push for more open relations between the island and the US.
But his biggest accomplishment? His involvement with Habitat for Humanity, an organization that takes a bottom-up approach to addressing poverty, building homes for people who need some means to escape an endless cycle of slums, Section 8 housing, and crushing debt. Have seen this effort up close (I helped work on a house while I was out of work a few years ago), I can attest that it’s much better managed and does more for the poor than many state and federal programs that seem bogged down in paperwork, useless regulations, and political jockeying.
Many presidents come into the White House with their biggest accomplishments behind them. A few, like Lincoln, both Roosevelts, and Truman, are made by the presidency. For Jimmy Carter, the presidency was just the beginning.