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Was Jimmy Carter All That Bad?

Updated on April 10, 2019

Bad Timing or Bad Leadership?

Many Americans today seem to have trouble making a distinction between the president of the United States and the government in general. When you listen to people talk about politics - or you make the fatal error of getting involved in a political discussion on Facebook - it seems that they hold the president responsible for virtually everything. The only question is whether they are blaming him for all that is going wrong in this nation and world or giving him credit for whatever is going well.

While the president is clearly a very powerful individual, it makes no sense on all sorts of levels to hold him responsible for virtually everything. He is merely the head, after all, of one of the three branches of the federal government, and there are also massive numbers of political officials and government employees at the state and local level doing things on a daily basis that have a profound effect on people's lives. The circumstances of the moment are also shaped by a vast array of complex forces that no individual or government can ever possibly understand or control. When the president does manage to push through Congress a law, program, or policy that has a real measurable impact, it can take years to see the full effects of this action. Many of us humans, however, prefer a simple world, and since the president is the most visible figure in a government often expected to solve all our problems, he tends to be held responsible for everything, particularly during bad times.

One of the keys to being considered a successful president, therefore, is timing. If you happen to be president during a time of relative peace and prosperity, then people might remember you fondly. But if you inherit a lousy economy or happen to be sitting in the White House when a major crisis (or two or three or twelve) breaks out for reasons that have little or nothing to do with you, then you may go down in history as one of several presidential failures.

If asked to determine the winner of the title "Unluckiest President in History," historians would have a long and intense debate. Herbert Hoover, who followed policies that seemed to be working so well throughout the 1920s, saw the economy begin to crash and burn about seven months into his presidency. In the case of Barack Obama, the economy began to implode shortly before he was elected. While the general consensus is that Hoover was a failure, it may be a little early to cast a verdict on Obama. Compared to Abraham Lincoln, however, Hoover and Obama had it easy. Between Lincoln's election and his inauguration four months later, seven states seceded from the Union, with his predecessor doing nothing to stop them. Lincoln was then forced to make some of the toughest decisions in presidential history, initiating a war that led to hundreds of thousands of deaths. If the Civil War had not ultimately ended with a Union victory, Lincoln would be ranked near the bottom of the list rather than being the consensus choice for best president in history.

When thinking about modern presidents (of the past 50 years or so), Jimmy Carter is the name that is most often associated with failure. During his tenure, inflation was out of control, unemployment was higher than normal, there were shortages of gasoline, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, and more than 50 Americans were held hostage in Iran for over a year. (Disco was also at the peak of its popularity, although it is difficult to pin that one on Carter.) Through it all, Carter seemed unable to come up with strong and coherent responses to these problems. While Carter, unlike a president such as Nixon, seemed to be an honest and decent man, he appeared to be in way over his head. The fact that he was a former peanut farmer from the South only strengthened the impression that he was an unqualified hick.

But is it fair to blame Carter for all of these unfortunate circumstances? Was he just another president who was a victim of bad timing? Inflation, after all, had been an issue since the 1960s, with Carter's predecessors also having little success in bringing it under control. The up tick in unemployment was largely the result of increased foreign competition from Western Europe and Japan, a development that was inevitably going to happen regardless of who was sitting in the White House. The gasoline crisis was caused both by the Iranian revolution and by years of ill conceived price controls on gasoline that began with Richard Nixon (and that Carter eventually started to eliminate). This Iranian Revolution, which led to the Iranian hostage crisis, could be traced back to a CIA backed coup in 1953 that put the Shah in power, a coup followed by a quarter century of the United States supporting this corrupt dictator. Carter's only role in the crisis was his decision to allow the hated Shah to come to the United States in exile, a decision that likely any president in his position would have made.

So was Carter's apparent failure as a president merely the result of bad timing? To some degree, Carter seemed to be the classic example of a president being held responsible for circumstances often out of his hands. The trouble, however, with absolving Carter of all responsibility is that all presidents, even those blessed by certain positive circumstances, face various crises during their administrations. The fact that Carter is remembered as being so unusually incompetent must also have something to do with his responses to these crises and his qualities as a leader.

Strangely enough, when one looks back at some of Carter's ideas and policies with 40 years worth of hindsight, much of what he said and tried to do makes a lot of sense. In response to the energy crisis, Carter said that the United States needed to take major steps toward changing how its people produced and used energy. Actions had to be taken to both reduce America's reliance on fossil fuels (that increasingly came from foreign countries) and to be more energy efficient. I often wonder where our nation would be today if the United States had embarked on a Manhattan Project-style investment into alternative energy 40 years ago. In addition to our nation and possibly our world being a whole lot cleaner, the United States could have been an even bigger economic powerhouse than it is today, the undisputed global leader in clean energy production. Instead, we still crank out a lot of coal, and due to "fracking," the United States has once again become a major oil producer.

In response to the Iranian Hostage Crisis, Carter mostly showed restraint, with the exception of an ill-conceived rescue attempt that proved to be a colossal failure. But by refusing to take other military actions that were also likely to fail, Carter increased the odds of the hostages getting home alive. Unfortunately for him, the hostages were not released until the day that Ronald Reagan was inaugurated, and the longer the crisis dragged on, the more Carter's restraint was perceived by many Americans to be weakness. Still, restraint was probably the wisest course. While blowing stuff up and killing people may have been viewed as strong leadership by some, this would have likely done little more than get the hostages killed and make the Muslim world in general even more anti-American than it already was (and is today).

Carter was well aware that much of the Muslim world viewed the United States in a negative light. He also knew that US support of Israel was one of the root causes of this anti-Americanism. Anything that could possibly improve Israeli relations with any of its neighbors, therefore, was also a good thing for American security. This is one reason why Carter threw himself into Israeli-Egyptian peace negotiations. Remarkably, largely through Carter's skillful mediation, Egypt, which had historically been one of Israel's arch enemies, became the first Israeli neighbor to sign an agreement with this nation that was largely reviled throughout the Muslim world. Unfortunately for Carter, most Americans cared far more about their daily lives than events overseas, and this monumental diplomatic achievement did next to nothing to improve his popularity within the United States.

Carter in general was also wise enough to realize that the best path to victory in the Cold War was not always military action. During the early years of his presidency, Carter talked a great deal about the United States doing more to promote human rights throughout the world. In his view, the best way to fight communism was not simply to kill communists and support all anti-communist leaders, some of whom were corrupt dictators with terrible human rights records. By actually promoting human rights rather than simply talking about the importance of freedom and democracy, the United States could bring much of the world to its side in the Cold War. Unfortunately, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan took the wind out of the sails of his human rights program, with many arguing that the Soviet Union was capitalizing on Carter's weakness. In the real world, Carter's idealistic fantasy was not going to work against a nation as powerful and ruthless as the Soviet Union. Sometimes, you have to get your hands dirty to beat a bad guy.

Carter's problem was not a lack of knowledge or wisdom. In terms of in depth knowledge of the issues of his time, few presidents in American history could compete with Carter. If anything, Carter may have been too smart and well informed. He was convinced that he knew the best course of action and proceeded to try and make it happen regardless of what Congress or the general public might think. And when necessary, he was willing to commit the cardinal sin in modern American politics: asking for sacrifice. In spite of his reputation as a liberal Democrat, Carter was actually a fiscal conservative who ran up far smaller deficits than his successor, the supposedly conservative Ronald Reagan. This is one of the main reasons that Ted Kennedy challenged Carter for the 1980 Democratic nomination. In the opinion of liberal Democrats, Carter did not want to spend enough on social programs. And when the energy crisis hit its peak, Carter had the audacity to ask Americans to change their lifestyles and make short-term sacrifices in the name of long-term gain. Americans, of course, did not want to be told that they needed to change in order to solve a problem. They wanted a "strong leader" who would solve the problem for them.

In politics, it is not enough to have good ideas. A strong leader needs to be able to sell these ideas to others, whether lobbying Congress to get things done or trying to convince the general public to follow. Effective presidents knew how to "wheel and deal" with Congress, work the press, and convince the public that their ideas were the best courses of action to follow. Ronald Reagan, who crushed Carter in the 1980 election, was a great example of a president who was more of an effective salesman than an intellectual. Carter, unfortunately, was ineffective at the game of politics, a game he did not even seem to enjoy playing. Given the circumstances that Carter faced, it is possible that no president could have come out of that era as a resounding success. Carter, unfortunately, with his limited experience (and lack of interest) playing the game of Washington DC politics and his (accurate) belief that he was smarter and more principled than most people, was likely doomed from the start.


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