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James Earl Carter, a U.S. naval officer, farmer, Georgia state senator and governor, and the thirty-ninth president of the United States, was the most inexperienced politician to serve as president in the latter half of the twentieth century. This inexperience contributed to President Carter’s mixed legacy in foreign and domestic policies, despite having the largest majority of Democrats in the U.S. Congress since the Lyndon Baines Johnson (1908–1973) administration, as well as initial support from the American people to chart a new course in presidential politics.
Elected the first southern president since before the Civil War (1861–1865), Carter campaigned against corruption and dishonesty in Washington, maintaining that he would never lie to the American people. His honest character and an anti-Washington environment, including lingering public resentment over Gerald Ford’s pardon of Richard Nixon (1913–1994), undoubtedly helped Carter build an early and commanding thirty-point lead in polls. But Carter needed the help of Ford’s own gaffe in the second presidential debate, during which Ford stated that the Soviet Union did not dominate Eastern Europe, to narrowly defeat the incumbent and former vice president by only fifty-seven electoral votes. Carter would later understand the impact that the media could have on his presidency when they focused more on his cardigan sweaters (style) than his policy message about the oil shortage (substance) during his short-lived fireside chats.
In foreign policy, President Carter achieved significant victories and stunning defeats. Just as Nixon was the first U.S. president to visit China, Carter was the first to normalize relations with the Communist country. Carter also helped broker the Camp David Accords, which brought peace between Egypt and Israel in March 1979. He had earlier won a hard-fought victory in the Senate (however unpopular) when it ratified the Panama Canal Treaty in April 1978, turning control of the canal over to the Panamanian government partially in October 1979 and completely on December 31, 1999.
Despite receiving a bump in his job-approval ratings (from 31 to 52%, according to the Gallup Poll) following the seizure of hostages in Iran, Carter was criticized for his decision to admit the ailing shah of Iran into the United States for medical treatment. This action precipitated the taking of more than sixty American hostages from the U.S. embassy in Tehran on November 4, 1979. This crisis plagued the Carter presidency until his successor, Ronald Reagan (1911–2004), took the oath of office on January 20, 1981, when all the hostages were released. Previous diplomatic, economic, and military efforts to secure the release of the hostages had failed. Most politically damaging to the president and his reputation as chief diplomat and commander in chief was a failed rescue mission on April 24, 1980, in which three malfunctioning helicopters forced the operation to be aborted. Carter’s inability to secure the hostages’ release defined his presidency as a failure in foreign policy, despite its numerous diplomatic successes.
The relationship of the United States with the Soviet Union also proved mixed during the Carter presidency. Carter signed the SALT II arms control treaty with Soviet premier Leonid Brezhnev (1906–1982) in June 1979, but the U.S. Senate did not ratify it. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979 all but ended the administration’s hope for ratification. The invasion also precipitated a U.S. grain embargo of the Soviet Union (ended by Reagan in 1981), a United Nations resolution calling for the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan, and a boycott of the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow by the
United States and sixty-three other nations. It also led to the “Carter Doctrine,” outlined in Carter’s last State of the Union address in January 1980, which established that any attempt by the USSR “to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States.”
Carter is often blamed for failing to deliver what all presidents must deliver to be politically successful and ensure their own reelection: a strong economy. His difficulties in convincing Congress and the American public to adopt his massive energy program are tantamount to the policy problems he faced. The final energy statute was much weaker than what he had requested, and the American people did not receive well his pleas for sacrifice and conservation, despite the intended benefits. Carter is often viewed as an unskilled legislative leader, in part because he proposed too many major legislative initiatives (Light 1999). Yet, his domestic victories have had a lasting impact on American society. Two major successes— founding the departments of Energy and Education— withstood calls for abolishment by the Reagan administration and remain influential and indicative of the legacy of the Carter presidency. Other successes, such as deregulation of the airlines (1978), natural gas prices (1978), and the trucking industry (1980) continue to affect American consumers, just as the Alaska Land Act (1980) set aside over 100 million acres of federal land for wilderness areas and national parks.
The failures of the Carter presidency clearly overshadowed his important policy successes. His opponent in the 1980 presidential election, the former Republican governor of California, Ronald Reagan, simplified voters’ decisions to a retrospective evaluation of the current administration—are you better off now than you were four years ago? Carter lost by 10 percent in the popular vote, but won only six states and the District of Columbia—forty-nine electoral votes or 9 percent of the total—in his failed reelection bid on November 4, 1980.
As a former president, Carter has been involved in numerous humanitarian and diplomatic missions. Well known as a volunteer for Habitat for Humanity, Carter also led a diplomatic convoy to avert a crisis in Haiti (1994), lectured in political science at Emory University, and won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002 “for his decades of untiring effort to find peaceful solutions to international conflicts, to advance democracy and human rights, and to promote economic and social development” (Nobel Committee 2002). Just as when he was president, Carter continued to foster human rights around the world. In these and other ways, Carter has been uniquely more respected and influential after 1980 than he was during his term as president.
- Carter, Jimmy. 1975. Why Not the Best? The First Fifty Years. Nashville, TN: Broadman.
- Carter, Jimmy. 1980. State of the Union Address (January 23). http://www.jimmycarterlibrary.org/documents/speeches/ su80jec.phtml.
- Carter, Jimmy. 1982. Keeping Faith: Memoirs of a President. New York: Bantam.
- Light, Paul C. 1999. The President’s Agenda: Domestic Policy Choice from Kennedy to Clinton. 3rd ed. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.
- Nobel Committee. 2002. Press Release: The Nobel Peace Prize 2002. http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/peace/laureates/ 2002/press.html.
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