Jimmy Carter arrived in the White House at a moment when his appeal--an image of honesty and a willingness to reject traditional Washington politics--felt like a direct response to the lack of faith and confidence created by the Johnson/Nixon/Ford administrations. Carter appeared to many to be exactly what the nation needed to cleanse us from the sins of Watergate. As a successful businessman and popular governor, he held the promise of effective and efficient leadership that was seen as lacking in the Ford White House. And yet despite this great promise and high approval ratings in the early stages of his presidency (75% in March 1977), Carter served only a single term and is commonly seen as a failure.
In order to understand how a presidency could start so well and end in failure, I want to consider a few key questions. Did Carter fail because he was a bad president? Did he fail because he served at a time when failure was inevitable regardless of the individual in power? If both are true (and my suspicion leans in that direction), how might this failure serve as a warning or a lesson to future presidents and the people who elect them? In an attempt to address these questions, I will be reading several books on Carter and his presidency, starting with Burton and Scott Kaufman's The Presidency of James Earl Carter, Jr.
Before getting to Carter's time in office, I want to touch on the moment of his ascendancy to the presidency in 1976. This was a period of starkly contrasting perceptions of the presidency. In one sense, you have the legacy of LBJ and Nixon as imperial presidents who embodied an activist executive branch. They were able to move legislation through Congress and consolidated power in the White House. At the same time, the credibility gap, Watergate, and the pardoning of Nixon created a perfect storm of distrust in the presidency and opened the door for Congress to take steps to weaken the president's power. It seems, then, that the very tide that carried Carter to the White House also laid the groundwork for his eventual failure.
As the Kaufmans' write, "the American public expected more of a president in terms of making the nation a better place to live in than he could deliver. The presidency was an 'underdefined institution' constitutionally and historically, and the American people seemed to want a strong and effective chief executive who was also open and democratic. Yet these worthy objectives were not always compatible. The public longed for leadership but was skeptical of the nation's leaders."
It seems that Carter, like all the presidents who followed him, attempted to lead the nation in the shadow of Richard Nixon. While a number of his successors were able to navigate their administrations out of this shadow, Carter, as the first real post-Nixon executive was not as successful. What I'm hoping to determine as a I move forward is how much of this is due to Carter's shortcomings and how much is the weight that the Nixon stigma brought to the White House. Was Carter simply the wrong man for the moment?