Monday, February 15, 2010

P Day: Jimmy Carter

I've been meaning to respond for some time now to a recent back-and-forth between Matt Yglesias and Kevin Drum over the Jimmy Carter presidency, and I suppose that today's bogus holiday is a good excuse to do a little presidency blogging.  Yglesias said:
Does that mean Carter was a great president? No. Obviously, he left little in the way of enduring achievements. But by looking at his rivals you can get a sense of what alternative courses had serious levels of support at the time, and there was nothing better on offer. Carter’s horrible reputation owes to the fact that moderate presidents faced with bad macroeconomic luck just get disowned.
To which Drum responded:
Carter was president during a difficult period, and politically he turned out to be fairly tone deaf and ineffective. As someone who didn't vote for his reelection in 19801 I won't defend him as a great president, but substantively he left behind more in the way of enduring achievements than most people give him credit for. [the footnote explains that Drum voted for Anderson].
To which I'll respond: hogwash.  Jimmy Carter was a terrible president, with a deservedly terrible reputation.

To fully understand Jimmy Carter's failure, it's important to go back and think about partisan and ideological balance over the long run of American politics.  If one begins in 1932, what one finds is that most of the time the United States has had divided government -- either partisan divided government, or ideological divided government, or both.  Conservative Republicans have controlled the White House, the House, and the Senate really only during the George W. Bush years, with a real working majority (but not a supermajority in the Senate) only in 2003-2006.  Liberal Democrats controlled all three during the first few years of FDR's presidency, during the first half of the 1960s, during Bill Clinton's first two years, and right now, although again without Senate supermajorities during the Clinton and, less so, the Obama years.  And during Jimmy Carter's presidency. After the 1974 elections, liberals maintained huge majorities in both House and Senate (with 61 Senators in Carter's first two years, and 58 in the last two years). 

In the first two of these periods liberals passed the New Deal and Great Society.  Clinton tried, and Obama is trying, to accomplish the primary unfinished goal of American liberals, universal health care.  Carter did not, at least not until he was dragged to it by the threat of a primary challenge from Ted Kennedy.  Moreover, Carter basically failed to attempt to accomplish any of the main goals of Democratic-oriented groups.  He wasn't defeated; he just didn't try.  Did Carter ever advance any serious labor legislation?  I don't think so -- and labor, of course, was a lot healthier and a lot more central to the Democrats in the 1970s than it was in the 1990s or during Obama's time.  I think the proper way to look at Carter is that 1997-1980 were the great lost opportunity for American liberals. 

Instead, Carter spend a lot of time and political energy on procedural reforms that, at best, were unlikely to yield any political rewards.  Things like "zero-based budgeting," or executive branch reorganization. 
Carter was also quick to take on the interests of Democratic Members of Congress (he fought a bitter battle over "pork" in the form of Western water projects that Hill Democrats wanted) but indifferent or hostile to their concerns, or the concerns of Democratic-oriented interest groups.  Thus when hard times came, few had any reason to stay loyal to him.  Carter seemed to think of such concerns as "politics," and as such not really a legitimate part of policy-making.  Here's the late Nelson W. Polsby on Carter:
Policy-making, to Carter, meant identifying problems and applying rational intelligence to the formulation of good solutions.  If possible, solutions should strike at the root of problems, should be comprehensive and basic.  If they were the right solutions, they would commend themselves to Congress, and if not to Congress, then he could appeal over the heads of Congress to the people...By adhering to these beliefs, Carter proved himself to be a man strongly in the grip of a coherent theoretical model of political leadership...[I]t reminded observers not only of the rigidities of that other engineer-President, Herbert Hoover, but also those of that great constitutional tinkerer and admirer of the Prussian civil service, Woodrow Wilson.
Polsby shows the ways this attitude led mostly to disaster for Carter, and concluded:
...[D]espite the tendency of President Carter to emphasize the contrasts between Washington and grass roots America, there were, and are, intimate connections between members of Congress and interest group leaders who do business in Washington and their constituents out around the country.  President Carter not only underestimated these connections, but he overestimated his own capacity to reach out over the heads of the rest of the Washington community directly to the American people.  He did in fact reach the American people directly, through television, but the message as received would unavoidably be subjected to interpretation, and that is where a President needs friends and allies...[T]here was very little [Democrats] could do to improve the image of a President so determined to do business in a way that defied the logic of a constitutional design that demands cooperation, coordination, and conciliation among the branches of government (Polsby, Congress and the Presidency, 4th ed., 57-68).
Basically, Carter was really bad at being president, and because he was so lousy at being president he wound up being very unpopular, and because of that even many of the good policies he did develop became unpopular because anything associated with him became unpopular. 


  1. While I agree with your assessment of Carter in general, I think you miss the role of the presidential Democratic party, and in the process you are too kind to Clinton and Obama. Both men followed failed Republican presidencies. In effect, Clinton realized the corporate agenda that was out of Bush Sr.'s reach -- telecom "reform," banking "reform," welfare "reform," an increasingly militarized foreign policy, a failed effort to save the health insurance industry, etc. It is easier to access Clinton's legacy than Obama's, for obvious reasons, but, barring a radical change of direction in the next two years, he is headed down a similar path -- with expanded war and attendant loss of civil liberties & expanded corporate welfare and a smaller economic safety net the primary accomplishments of his tenure -- the same route Bush Jr. would have followed if he could.

  2. Nice essay. Carter refused to play the DC game that still exists today and so he had little to no support in Congress. They even tried to challenge him in the 1980 election with Ted Kennedy.

    If Carter had use of the Internet back then I think his efforts to go directly to the people might have gotten him re-elected (if the hostage issue hadn't beat him up)

  3. When will the lunacy stop?
    Since the made-for-TV historic "election" of Barack Obama pundits, wet-behind-the-ears bloggers and former DC interns with scruffy beards and self-imagined importance have been littering the pages of websites, newspapers and magazines with U-N-E-A-R-N-E-D comparisons.

    One day Obama is the next JFK, then the next LBJ, then the next Reagan, and lately the next Carter.

    I'd gladly agree and defer to the K-street hooliagans, Brookings bad boys and liberal bloggers, but one small thing holds me back. Before graduating from law school, I earned a baccalaureate HISTORY.

    As a child of a father who lived for Georgia politics, I met Jimmy Carter. Say whatever you will about Carter, there's not a disingenuous bone in this man's body. With Carter you had a President who failed in good faith, likely because this town (DC) lacks it both in media perception and its warped reality.

    I also met Barack Obama in 2004, as an idealistic volunteer at the Democratic National Convention. I along with 5 others were dispatched to through Boston's Faneuil Hall to the waterfront to "fill" the crowd for then-state senator Obama.

    When Obama finished his speech, he exited to his left, making his way toward us. Just when our eyes met and he started to greet, a small gaggle of news reporters with cassette recorders and cameras passed. Obama forgot we existed and dashed for the fleeting press corps, deferring to his personal ambition and abandoning his charade of being a people person...a community organizer.

    Not one failing of the Obama presidency has been a result of genuine care or concern or even a fundamental belief in America. Each one of Obama's letdowns have been the direct result of bad political calculation. All of them.

    LBJ would have locked the House doors until something was done to stop the poverty and economic woes suffered across this country. JFK would have slept on a cot in the Oval Office until the Gulf Oil spill was stopped. Reagan would have dominated the international stage until world leaders agreed with him.

    Obama is but a shell when the cameras are off. Self-absorbed, basking in the reality of his personal accomplishments while ordinary Americans suffer.

    Jimmy Carter made his famous malaise speech assuming that on the other side of the camera was humanity and a common belief in America. What he learned was that there were vultures, birds of political prey who saw compassion as weakness and pounced on it.

    I truly believe today that other than Hillary Clinton, I could be the only person in America who saw the Obama presidency coming. Maybe that's because I studied history as opposed to trying to create it.

  4. Well said, but if I may parse the above comment, I think one overacrhing theme is that Carter was a visionary, first, politician second. He likely, and unfortunately for the Nation, held faith in the electorate, not the "system politic". His Oval Office appeal to the electorate epitomizes that. It did not take long for the Republican Party to use political campaigning as a tool of the ideologue, rather than the foundation of a stable democracy by and for the people.

    We have been lost in our reverie since no less than 78(?) when Carter spoke to the nation from the WH. We need to come to our senses and recognize that sacrifice is warranted, necessary and will be our solution to national ills.

    As previously noted, just as those took Carter's compassion as weakness, we need recognize the many whose bravado and rhetoric is merely self-agrandisement for personal gain in '10.

  5. it's 2012. i don't care. at all.

    and for the record,

    1. it depends on who you compare him too. there is no objective measure of "good" or "bad" when it comes to presidents. everyone talks about how awful bush II was, but he got everything he wanted done for the most part (iran isn't a smoking, radioactive hole in the earth...yet.)

    2. while i find the "presidents are weak/powerless/insert other lame excuse here" arguments insipid at best, you can't discount the sphere of influence around the executive when monday morning quarterbacking their decisions and tactics. do you really think carter would have been so eager to play around with mujahideen in afghanistan if he didn't have russophobe extraordinaire zbig breathing down his neck?


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