Bad Presidents: Jimmy Carter, Part One

When I began my investigation of the Carter presidency, I was well aware that the conventional wisdom suggests that it was a failure. The main issue of contention appears to be how much of that is Carter's responsibility. Was he the victim of a moment when virtually any president would have failed? Or was did he make a bad situation worse through a series of bad leadership decisions? 

Carter and his vice president, Walter Mondale. 

Carter and his vice president, Walter Mondale. 

After reading Burton and Scott Kaufman's The Presidency of James Earl Carter, Jr., I am left with the impression that it was the latter. Carter brought a dangerous combination of qualities to the presidency: a moral certainty that he was right and an inability to work within established Washington norms. Either one is deeply problematic, but taken together, they result in almost certain failure. 

As the Kaufmans note, Carter's outsider message resonated with a disillusioned America. "Since Carter's message was the failure of government to be worthy of the character and principles of the American people, he could reap the fallout from the Watergate scandal and Richard Nixon's subsequent resignation in 1974." He came to power with a strong message as an outsider and businessman who had cleaned up the statehouse as governor of Georgia. This appealed to a public that wanted "a style of leadership predicated on openness, truthfulness, and public responsiveness." Carter and his team read this perfectly and "morality was the emerging keynote of the campaign..." While this approach was the right message for a campaign, it set Carter up for a number of problems thanks to the incredibly high expectations they created for his administration. If you campaign on morality and the restoration of civic responsibility, people are going to expect to see that happen. And yet, the reality of politics rarely allows for such untarnished black-and-white results. 

Along with sky-high expectations, Carter's campaign strategy created another issue by souring his relationship with the Washington establishment. When you run as an outsider untainted by D.C., you're not going to have many friends when you settle down in the White House. It's hard to blame long-serving politicians for being wary of a man who won office by calling them corrupt and out of touch with the public.

Worsening matters was Carter's certainty that his positions were morally correct. As the Kaufmans write, "he assumed that those who opposed his programs acted from selfish motives rather than from their own perception of the public good. This he was loath to compromise on what he regarded as matters of principle." This is a dangerous way to approach the world of politics, and it made Carter's goals of passing reforms to the tax code and energy policy incredibly difficult to see through. 

A worn-down looking Carter.

A worn-down looking Carter.

Carter's fiscally conservative approach to federal spending further complicated matters by putting him at odds with the very politicians and interest groups he needed to succeed and, eventually, be re-elected. He "was committed to reducing inflation and balancing the budget, even if that meant a restrictive fiscal policy and higher levels of unemployment than he preferred." At a time when a number of cities like New York were in dire need of federal help, Carter was looking to tighten the purse strings and cut spending. This was a significant surprise to me as someone more familiar with Carter's liberal reputation than his actual policies. And it was an even bigger surprise to the people who helped elect him. 

While many traditional members of the Democratic base were unhappy with Carter's approach, he alienated African-American voters most of all with his approach to spending. He campaigned on promises to reach out to the black communities struggling in places like New York and Detroit, but when the time came to follow through, he stood by his fiscal conservatism. "Despite Carter's commitment to a national urban policy, he never intended any major additional spending for the cities. Rather, he was interested in improving the targeting, coordination, and efficiency of existing programs." Whether or not this was the right way to approach a bad situation, Carter's actual policies were almost certain to come across like broken promises to people in need. 

In a way, Carter deserves to be commended for standing by his principles. He could have easily called for more spending, but he genuinely believed this was the wrong way to govern; that more was not necessarily better. And yet, the central issue undermining almost all problems the Carter administration faced was the inability to communicate this to the American people. The Kaufmans summarize this by noting "he devoted a great deal of attention to building coalitions on specific issues, [but] he did not provide the vision or spirit of comity necessary to cement those coalitions. In fact, he often seemed to be running with the fox while chasing the hounds--appealing to traditional Democratic constituencies in the language of a Republican." 

Taken together, these issues of alienating policies and poor communication left Carter with a disastrously low approval rating in the summer of 1980. "A Gallup poll in early August showed the president with a 21-percent approval rating, three points lower than that of Richard Nixon during the depths of Watergate and the worst rating of any American president in the history of polling." It's little wonder then that Carter suffered a catastrophic defeat at the hands of Ronald Reagan that fall, losing 489-49 in the Electoral College. 

The 1980 Electoral map with red representing states won by Ronald Reagan.

The 1980 Electoral map with red representing states won by Ronald Reagan.

While I plan to read more on Carter and his presidency, I have to agree with the Kaufmans' conclusion that Carter was a mediocre president who should be viewed as a failure. They sum this up convincingly when they argue that Carter's actions and policies left America with "an image of a hapless administration in disarray and of a presidency that was increasingly divided, lacking in leadership, ineffective in dealing with Congress, incapable of defending America's honor abroad, and uncertain about its purposes, priorities, and sense of direction." Taken together, it's hard to say that Carter doesn't belong in the books as a bad president. 

[Do you see Carter differently? Have you read books on the man and his presidency that left you with a more positive perspective? If so, respond in the comments and let me know what the Kaufmans got wrong and what I should read to help change this perception.]