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Summary Article: CARTER, JIMMY
From Encyclopedia of U.S. Political History

born 1924

Thirty-ninth President of the United States

Thirty-ninth president of the United States, Nobel Peace Prize recipient, and human rights activist, James (Jimmy) Earl Carter Jr., helped to shape post-Watergate politics and define post-New Deal liberalism. Though his one-term presidency was marred by foreign policy crises and a tumultuous economy, Carter's post-presidential career has rendered him a revered citizen of the world.

Early Life

Born October 1, 1924, in Plains, Georgia, Carter earned his bachelor's degree from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1946 but left the service in 1953 and moved home to revive the family's flagging business interests, peanut farm, and warehouse. After turning the family business around, Carter plunged into the wider world of public service, serving two terms in the state senate before running unsuccessfully for governor in 1966. Though he emerged from obscurity to nearly defeat two well-known opponents, the near miss devastated him. Between 1966 and 1970, Carter underwent a spiritual transformation in which he fully embraced his evangelical Baptist faith and became "born again." In 1970, he captured the governorship where he displayed the hardnosed, ambitious, and self-righteous tendencies that came to define his unique political style. By late 1972, Carter had begun thinking about a run for the White House.

Presidential Campaign

Though Carter and his cadre of supporters, affectionately dubbed the "Peanut Brigade," had virtually no national political experience, the early 1970s proved to be an ideal time for political novices to leap into a presidential run. Following the tumultuous 1968 Democratic Convention, party bosses ceded control of the nominating process to primary voters and caucus-goers. Understanding an "outsider" with a small core of dedicated activists could win the Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary, attract media attention, and race to victory, Carter began running for the 1976 nomination in late 1972. Adding to his chances was Richard Nixon's Watergate scandal and the fallout from the social tumult of the 1960s, which created a national mood matching Carter's populist "Washington outsider" campaign. Indeed, Carter's strategy so successfully fit the national mood that it became the model for most post-Watergate presidential aspirants.

Armed with a coherent strategy and an understanding of the national political environment, Carter spent three years building an organization, fund-raising, and gaining much-needed media exposure. Similar to what he had done during his gubernatorial race, Carter avoided specific policies while campaigning, preferring to use his charm, integrity, and sincerity as selling points. On the trail in relatively small and rural states like Iowa, Oklahoma, Maine, and Alaska, Carter established a rapport with voters that translated into a string of early victories and strong showings that served to create the intense media coverage necessary for a relative unknown to remain competitive in big states. The nature of a divided and crowded Democratic field—combined with Carter's personal charm, unusual biography, and understanding of the national mood—propelled him to the nomination.

As the Democratic standard-bearer, Carter faced a caretaker incumbent in Pres. Gerald Ford. Despite an enormous early lead in the polls, Carter committed a number of costly mistakes that led to a close race. The candidate's admission that he had "committed adultery in my heart many times" in an interview with Playboy as well as his contradictory promises to reduce budget deficits while enacting significant social welfare programs enabled the Republicans to make a race of it. (Scheer 63-68)

It was President Ford, however, who committed the fatal mistake in the 1976 campaign. At the height of the hotly tested contest and during a televised debate, Ford claimed, "there is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe." With Carter's mistakes obscured by the president's televised foreign policy gaffe, the challenger reversed his plummeting poll numbers.

Carter's appeal to organized labor, Southern white evangelicals, African Americans, and middle-class and educated liberals proved the difference in a razor-thin election. Winning every state in the former Confederacy, except Virginia, along with the Northern industrial states of Pennsylvania, New York, Ohio, Minnesota, and Wisconsin, Carter captured a 50.1 percent-48 percent victory in the popular vote and a 297-240 Electoral College squeaker.

The Presidency

The mid-1970s presented enormous domestic and foreign policy challenges. The combination of Vietnam War-related spending, increased social welfare expenditures, untimely tax cuts, and an Arab oil embargo had pummeled the American economy. By 1977, the U.S. economy was dogged by stagflation, a combination of high unemployment and inflation, a condition that economists had believed impossible. As if dealing with a troubled economy were not enough, Carter also faced significant foreign policy issues. Though Richard Nixon's policy of détente had successfully relaxed tensions with the Soviet Union during the early to mid 1970s, the strategy collapsed under Carter's watch. In addition, the president dealt with an increasingly turbulent Middle East, a condition highlighted by the 1979 Iranian Revolution.

In addition to these significant policy challenges, profound demographic changes had produced a population shift from the Northeast to the "Sunbelt" that fundamentally altered American politics. Consequently, the Roosevelt coalition that had dominated American political life since the Great Depression had come undone. Made up of Northern industrial states and organized labor, the white South, and African Americans, the pieces and parts of the Roosevelt coalition had either lost their electoral clout, as was the case with organized labor, or were gravitating away from the Democrats, as happened in the white South.

This seismic shift presented Carter with a different political world than that encountered by his Democratic predecessors. Thus, the amalgamation of a turbulent economy, assorted foreign policy crises, and a changed political environment severely limited Carter's chances for success.

Domestic Policy Overview

Carter entered office without a coherent domestic program. He called for balanced budgets but also promised expansive and expensive social welfare programs such as national health insurance. Once in office, Carter came to see inflation and government excess as a significant national problem and shelved jobs programs and social welfare spending in favor of reducing government expenditures. Though congressional liberals balked mightily at the president's priorities, more than anything it was Carter's eye for minutiae and calls for "comprehensive" fixes that killed his domestic agenda. Because omnibus legislation creates more opposition than does incremental reform, Carter's "comprehensive" welfare reform and energy plan raised public expectations while also creating additional congressional opposition. Thus, even when Congress passed some of the energy plan, the president had unnecessarily expended precious political capital.

Ignoring the pleas of congressional leaders to limit his priorities and the scope of his legislation, Carter instead called for comprehensive welfare reform, governmental reorganization, and the creation of cabinet-level departments of Energy and Education. By pushing such big legislative items all at once, the president created a congressional logjam. With legislators alternately overworked and angry, Carter's welfare reform bill died in Congress.

In welfare reform, Carter had promised to make all recipients find work in return for government aid. The president could not even forge an agreement within his own Cabinet on the issue, and the plan died a quiet death before Carter's first year in office was complete. Though Carter eventually passed an energy plan, which presciently funded alternative energies, the combination of an overstuffed legislative agenda and a combative Congress caused the president's ambitious package to fail.

Although the president was eventually successful in overseeing the creation of departments of Energy and Education, passed his government reorganization plan, and pushed unpopular budgets through Congress, the bumbling manner in which they were passed, coupled with his high-profile legislative failures, established a lasting image of a feckless and bumbling chief executive.

Foreign Policy

If anything, the Carter administration's foreign policy was even messier and more confused than its domestic agenda. To be fair, the president took office at a time when congressional support for détente had flagged and the U.S.S.R. was actively supporting communist insurgencies and governments across Africa and Central Asia. The turbulent nature of the times notwithstanding, the president's inability to formulate a consistent foreign policy badly hamstrung the administration.

Carter had entered office promising to make "human rights" the cornerstone of his administration's foreign policy. Though this commitment made for a wonderful campaign applause-line, the geopolitical realities of the Cold War rendered the promise difficult, if not impossible, to keep. Consequently, when the United Sates made positive overtures to a nation with a poor human rights record, such as China, Carter's own lofty pronouncements exposed him to calls of "hypocrisy."

Similar to that of every other president during the Cold War, Carter's foreign policy was inevitably defined by U.S.-Soviet relations. A combination of the president's inexperience in foreign policy and the rapidly changing international environment made for erratic strategy. Indeed, Carter's primary foreign policy advisors, Sec. of State Cyrus Vance and National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, were emblematic of the administration's seemingly schizophrenic policy. Until he abruptly resigned in 1980, Vance sought to maintain détente, even as Brzezinski urged a hard line. Consequently, from 1977 through early 1980, Carter's foreign policy drifted.

By the time of the Carter administration, the Middle East had become an increasingly strategic point in the Cold War and in the global economy even as it grew less politically and culturally stable. Following American assistance to Israel during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Arab states had imposed an oil embargo against the United States and Western Europe. The consequent spike in oil prices, gasoline shortages, and inflationary pressures transformed the Arab-Israeli conflict into a matter of national security.

Foreshadowing Carter's post-presidential career was his administration's one shining foreign policy success, the 1978 Camp David Accords. The task of personally negotiating the first peace agreement between Israel and Egypt played to Carter's considerable strengths. Using his personal charm, tenacity, and unshakeable belief in his own righteousness, Carter brokered a peace agreement between Egypt's Anwar Sadat and Israel's Menachem Begin. The Camp David Accords represent a significant milestone, but the turbulent Middle East eventually consumed Carter's presidency.

The Malaise Speech

Despite the president's austere budgets, "stagflation" continued to plague the American and world economy. In conjunction with stagflation was yet another "oil shock." The 1979 Iranian Revolution and subsequent "oil crisis" sent energy prices upward and resulted in severe gasoline shortages. On July 15, 1979, Carter responded to the crisis by delivering what is considered the most important speech of his presidency. More sermon than a traditional speech, Carter blamed the nation's problems on a "crisis of confidence" and urged Americans to look inward to alter the nation's economic and social ills. Though Carter never used the term "malaise," his dour tone led observers to give the speech its moniker. At first, the address received high marks from observers and the public but when Carter inexplicably fired four Cabinet secretaries days later, the "malaise speech" became a symbol of a listless and directionless administration.

The Final Year: 1980

It was the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, on Christmas Day 1979, which finally forced the president to create a coherent foreign policy, dubbed the Carter Doctrine. Because the administration believed the Soviet incursion into Central Asia was an initial move toward the Persian Gulf, the Carter Doctrine claimed Soviet hegemony in the Persian Gulf represented a threat to U.S. national security. The Carter Doctrine led to increased defense spending and marked the official demise of détente and the return of the Cold War.

Though the president had forged a decisive foreign policy, events—specifically the Iranian hostage crisis—engulfed the administration for the duration of Carter's tenure. Because of America's prior close relationship with Iran's strongman Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, when Islamic radicals overthrew the shah in 1979, they directed their venom at the United States. This turmoil turned for the worse when the formerly exiled cleric Ayatollah Khomeini, who had returned to Iran in early 1979, pushed young militants to seize the American embassy in Tehran and hold 52 hostages (on November 4, 1979).

Carter made the release of what became 53 American hostages his highest priority. Though his efforts to secure the hostages' release temporarily lifted his public approval numbers, as the crisis dragged on for weeks and months, the public gradually turned against him. The hostage crisis and spiraling energy prices sent inflation and unemployment rates surging. Carter's newly appointed Federal Reserve Chairman, Paul Volcker, opted to squash inflation by imposing high interest rates, which in early 1981 peaked at 21.5 percent. Though Volcker's policy effectively demolished inflation and ended stagflation by late 1983, Carter was left to face a reelection campaign saddled with a troubled economy, a foreign policy crisis, and a Democratic primary challenger in the person of Sen. Edward (Ted) Kennedy.

The 1980 Election

Kennedy underperformed in the Democratic primaries and never came close to actually winning the nomination. The senator's challenge, however, further weakened an already diminished incumbent. Adding insult to injury, Kennedy took what became his quixotic fight for the nomination all the way to the 1980 Democratic Convention. There, as the keynote speaker, Kennedy gave what many consider the finest speech of his political career. Unfortunately for Carter, the speech was not a ringing endorsement of the president so much as a defense of Kennedy's liberal ideals.

Despite the avalanche of unrelenting bad news, in the weeks prior to the 1980 election the polls revealed a dead heat between Carter and his Republican rival Ronald Reagan. Further complicating an already jumbled and confusing political season was Rep. John Anderson's third-party candidacy. Due to his frank rebuke of Reagan's social conservatism and Carter's ineptitude, the otherwise obscure Illinois Republican drew support from moderate "Rockefeller Republicans" and disaffected liberals. In the weeks and months prior to election day, Carter's reelection hopes hung on lingering questions of Ronald Reagan's temperament and conservative philosophy. From railing against Social Security and literally blaming air pollution on trees, Reagan had earned a reputation as an eloquent speaker given to bombast.

One week before the election, Reagan and Carter squared-off in their only televised debate. Reagan's cool, calm demeanor largely negated voters' fears. What followed was an electoral rout. Though Reagan only won 50.8 percent of the popular vote, he captured nearly 500 votes in the Electoral College. His resounding victory not only represented the voters' repudiation of Carter but by winning votes across the deep South and Northern industrial states it also signaled the death knell for Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal coalition. Reagan's victory effectively signaled an electoral realignment and made conservative Republicans dominant for a generation.

Though Carter's presidency was largely defined by failure, he did realize a number of signature legislative and institutional achievements. After shepherding the controversial Panama Canal Treaty through the Senate in 1978, ceding eventual control over the canal to the Panamanian government, in 1979 he officially recognized the People's Republic of China, ending nearly three decades of diplomatic wrangling. In the weeks after his loss to Reagan, he signed what was one of the most significant pieces of environmental legislation in American history, the National Interest Lands Conservation Act. The legislation designated over 100 million acres in Alaska as protected federal reserves, of which 27.47 million acres were designated as wilderness. In addition to this legislation, Carter helped revolutionize the office of the vice presidency. Prior to the Carter administration, the vice president's office was largely ceremonial. Rather than stick with this model, Carter gave Walter Mondale considerable influence and wide latitude over policy decisions, a turnabout and example his successors have followed.

After losing the White House at the age of 56, Carter transformed the post-presidency. Prior to Carter, most ex-presidents remained aloof from national and international politics. After penning an unusually frank and absorbing presidential memoir, Keeping Faith, he used the Carter Center as an institutional base of operations. Combining its namesake's fund-raising acumen, personal charm, and humanitarian goals, the Carter Center became a significant non-governmental organization helping to mediate conflicts and oversee elections across the globe. Through his work at the Carter Center, the president became so associated with democracy and human rights that the Nobel Committee awarded him the 2002 Nobel Peace Prize.

Though it involved more calamities than success, the Carter presidency represents a transition between two political eras, and Carter himself transformed the vice presidency and post-presidency.

Bibliography and Further Readings
  • Bourne, Peter. Jimmy Carter: A Comprehensive Biography from Plains to Post-Presidency. New York: Scribners, 1997.
  • Brinkley, Douglas. The Unfinished Presidency: Jimmy Carter's Journey beyond the White House. New York: Viking, 1998.
  • Carter, Jimmy. Turning Point: A Candidate, a State, and a Nation Come of Age. New York: Times Books, 1992.
  • Gary, Fink, and Graham, Hugh Davis, eds. The Carter Presidency: Policy Choices in the Post-New Deal Era. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1998.
  • Kaufman, Burton, The Presidency of James Earl Carter, Jr. Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 2006.
  • Scheer, Robert. "The Playboy Interview: Jimmy Carter." Playboy, November 1976: 63-86.
  • Stroud, Kandy. How Jimmy Won: The Victory Campaign from Plains to the White House. New York: William Morrow, 1977.
Jeffrey Bloodworth
© 2010 CQ Press, A Division of SAGE

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