Jimmy Carter was not a very popular president. History however, is becoming much kinder to the 39th president.
Carter, a relatively unknown politician outside of his native Georgia, defeated the unelected president, Gerald Ford, and was soundly defeated by Ronald Reagan in 1980. Carter was the temporary reprieve between the Nixon and Reagan years, as the political pendulum continued to swing. The documentary Jimmy Carter: Rock and Roll President, is symbolic of the 1970s culture after Watergate, and before the Christian Right exerted their political influence during Reagan’s first term.
Carter was probably the last president not to play to the media and in the end, he was beaten by Reagan, who did. Carter was an enigma; very confident, almost arrogant, and very much an outsider to the Washington political machine. During the campaign, the outsider image played big in his assent, but became a weakness when he had to learn to govern in this environment. At times, Carter did rely on the media, like focusing attention on the Camp David Accords, the historic agreements between Israel and Egypt that led to the peace treaty signed a year later. Mostly though, Carter failed to capitalize on the greatest resource to communicate to America, the Office of the President.
Carter also sought a more relaxed, down to earth presidency, talking to the nation wearing a cardigan sweater with a folksy, fireside presentation. A very smart, ideals-driven man, Carter attempted to communicate these ideals using his common man persona, a man of faith and a country boy no different than any of us. That was a good approach, but Carter, even with that toothy smile, had a hard time connecting with much of America. Carter, despite his good ole boy background, was in reality, anything but that. Carter was well-educated and a critical thinker. Even though he spoke of grand ideals like other presidents, Carter was a numbers guy and enjoyed the details. He read everything given to him, made notes and digested the background, but just the summaries. He read, and he kept daily journals of the day’s activities. Carter embraced the job of chief executive, and dove into the workings of the executive branch. He was often referred to as a micromanager, instead of operating at 30,000 feet like those before him.
One of Carter’s failures was not establishing a good relationship with Congress. Even though he had served in the Georgia Legislature and one term as governor, Carter’s legislative skills as president were lacking. He operated on strict values, not the Washington process of give and take, deals and pork barrel politics. Even his relationship with congressional leaders of his own party were strained. Carter’s legislative accomplishments suffered by his approach and lack of compromise. While his intentions were in keeping with his agenda and his values, Congress often refused to back his ideas. It came as no big surprise when Sen. Ted Kennedy challenged Carter for the Democratic nomination in 1980. The campaign was bitter and hurt Carter in the final months with Reagan.
Carter had to deal with high inflation and a stagnant economy, while trying to reduce the federal deficit and spending. Throughout the decade, America felt the pinch of OPEC volatile control of oil. High prices and shortages plagued Carter. While he was able to create the Department of Energy and pass several pieces of energy legislation, it was hard to reduce America’s dependence on foreign oil. Carter did get the country thinking about alternate kinds of energy, although it would take decades to realize this vision.
The Carter Administration also aligned foreign policy with human rights. This did not stop his efforts to sign arms limitation agreements with the Soviet Union and expand diplomatic relations with China. Agreements with Panama led the the eventual transfer of the canal back to Panama.
Despite Carter’s foreign policy successes, he was viewed by some as weak and would not take any military action if pushed. Carter is proud that he never took the country into conflict during those years, although the Iranian Hostage Crisis would undercut Carter’s Presidency and America’s stature on the world stage.
In the Jimmy Carter: Rock and Roll President, the Carter White House was a mixture of musical genres across the spectrum. There was also a fun, relaxed, humble side the public didn’t usually see. Carter smiled a lot, but the man was intense and driven. He might have been unaware of his image, or just did not care very much. It was the work that mattered, not the PR effort. Well, it did matter. It is hard to think of Carter not having good self-awareness because of his active faith and admitting his human weaknesses, like lusting in his heart. Even still, he may have been less aware of his weaknesses as president.
To better understand the Carter Presidency, one has to be willing to dig a bit. While the popular view is that Carter did not accomplish much in his 4 years and his lofty goals mostly fell short. That is not entirely true. Carter approached being president much differently than most. He did not work “executive hours” like many presidents and he was a voracious gatherer of information, wanting to know everything and put his mark on everything. Carter’s Presidency ended forty years ago, yet his legacy, partly fueled by his life after the White House, is still being written.