Richard S Kirkendall. Presidents: A Reference History. Editor: Henry F Graff. 3rd edition. Detroit: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2002.
Jimmy Carter was an unlucky president. He came to power shortly after the American failure in Vietnam and the Watergate scandals. Since the late 1960s, a “leadership crisis,” characterized by widespread, deep, and serious lack of confidence in the leaders the system supplied, had been a major feature of American politics. Also before he became president, an “energy crisis” and other economic troubles had emerged, raising doubts about the future of American power and prosperity. Carter was highly sensitive to these developments and shared the skepticism about “Washington” contained in them. Yet, he had confidence that his own personal qualities could end the leadership crisis. That confidence, coupled with a sense of the limits of power, dominated his approach to the presidency. But, faced with an unusually tough situation, he did not end the crisis. In fact, the American people, many of them convinced that he was weak and lacked direction, gave him only one term to reestablish confidence.
James Earl Carter, Jr., rose to office from a background that, though somewhat varied, was, compared with that of most presidents, quite narrow. The most obvious limitation was lack of previous experience in Washington.
Carter was a southerner, the first one since before the Civil War who had come to the presidency by election. He came from the small-town South—from Plains, Georgia, where he was born on 1 October 1924—the first of four children of Earl and Lillian Carter. A native southerner, Earl was a successful farmer-businessman active in public affairs.
Prior to the presidency, the United States Navy gave Carter his only extended experience outside the South. Following graduation from the segregated public school in Plains and two years at Georgia Southwestern and Georgia Tech, he entered the United States Naval Academy in 1943, an institution that stressed discipline and engineering. A strong student, he graduated in 1946 in the top 10 percent of his class. After marrying Rosalynn Smith of Plains on 7 July, he served as a naval officer until October 1953, mostly in the submarine service, including the nuclear program headed by Hyman Rickover, a man Carter admired greatly.
Following his father’s death, Carter returned home to look after the family farm and business, which specialized in peanuts. The business prospered but did not dominate his attention. He became active in public affairs, serving, for example, on the Sumter County Board of Education from 1956 to 1962. In the last year, he was elected to the state senate, where he served successfully for four years, devoting much attention to education. Civil rights was the most prominent issue at the time, but he continued to support segregation and largely avoided the controversy.
In 1966, Carter suffered his first serious failure, and it affected him significantly. He failed in a bid for the Democratic nomination for governor. Depressed, he turned to religion for comfort. Raised a Baptist, he now became much more intense, convinced that he had been “born again.”
In 1970, in his second bid for the governorship, Carter succeeded, and for the next four years, he presided over the state’s affairs. He embraced a quite eclectic philosophy with a strong conservative bent, especially on fiscal matters, though he liked to present himself as a populist, the representative of the common people against the establishment and the special interests. Proposing a large agenda of welfare reform, educational advance, budget reform, and other matters, he emphasized government reorganization in hopes of making government operate more efficiently and effectively, and he achieved some success. Also eager to promote economic growth, he cooperated with business leaders. And he demonstrated a new, though cautious, interest in reforming race relations.
Campaign for the Presidency
Ambitious and self-confident, Carter decided well before his term as governor ended to run for the presidency in 1976. To strengthen himself for the race, he became better informed on international affairs and better acquainted with certain elites and joined the prestigious Trilateral Commission. He also broke with George Wallace and in other ways improved his image on race relations.
Not a man of national prominence and power, the Georgian surprised the nation by gaining the nomination on the first ballot at the Democratic National Convention in New York. Behind this victory lay strenuous and successful participation in the now numerous primaries throughout the nation. His campaign, which began early in 1975, stressed Washington’s defects and his own virtues, not specific issues or a clearly defined ideology. He sensed a widespread yearning for change in leadership and great distrust of and skepticism about established leaders. He tried to persuade the disenchanted that he had the personality and values the situation demanded. He was moral and intelligent, tough yet compassionate. Carter defeated George Wallace in southern primaries, suggesting that the Georgian could solve what had become a major problem for his party, the breakup of the once-solid South. Other candidates had crowded the field, including Senator Henry Jackson of Washington, Congressman Morris Udall of Arizona, and Governor Jerry Brown of California, but one by one they had dropped out as Carter established himself as a winner who could reestablish Democratic control of the White House.
In midsummer, Carter and his vice presidential candidate, Walter Mondale of Minnesota, seemed likely to win the election by a wide margin, but President Gerald Ford gained ground rapidly. He took advantage of his incumbency, spending much of the campaign period in the White House “being president.” He attacked his foe as inexperienced, inconsistent, unclear, misguided, and liberal, and charged that the big-spending Democratic Congress was the major source of inflation. He pointed with pride to his record, arguing that no Americans were fighting a war, tension between the United States and the Soviet Union had been reduced, employment was increasing, and inflation was declining. Several blunders, including a statement that the Soviet Union did not dominate Eastern Europe, and Ronald Reagan’s less than full support, however, hampered Ford’s progress.
Against Ford, Carter did not function as effectively as he had against his Democratic foes. He stressed government reorganization, the reduction of unemployment, the continuation and expansion of government services, tax reform, and fiscal responsibility. He would, he suggested, be both compassionate and frugal. He made much of Ford’s shortcomings as a leader. Above all, he emphasized his own virtues and his freedom from the sins of the past, and promised moral regeneration. Although he did not work closely with the Democratic party, he benefited from its strengths and the weakness of the Republicans in the post-Nixon era. Economic troubles also helped him. But doubts about him as a southerner and a born-again Baptist hurt him, especially among liberals, Catholics, and Jews. And his own blunders, especially an unfortunate interview with Playboy magazine and the harshness of his attack on Ford, did some damage, raising doubts that he was as good as he suggested. The interview hurt him because of the reputation of the magazine and the nature of the matters discussed, including an appraisal of Lyndon Johnson as a person who had lied, cheated, and distorted the truth and Carter’s own opinions about religion and sex. In expressing them, Carter used the terms “shacks up” and “screws” and admitted that he had “committed adultery in my heart many times.” Mixed in their views of Ford as a person and as a leader, many voters found Carter puzzling—even contradictory—and untested.
Carter only squeaked through to victory, with a popular vote of 40.8 million to Ford’s 39.1 million and an electoral vote of 297 to 240. On election day, the liberals preferred him to Ford, and his fellow southerners gave him more than half of their votes, sharply reversing the southern trend away from Democratic presidential candidates that had been evident for several years. (Many southerners, he has since suggested, yearned for “political redemption.”) Catholics and organized labor gave him more support than they had given George McGovern four years before; most Jews stayed with the Democratic party; and more than 90 percent of black voters, including the large number in the South, supported Carter, offsetting the white majority for Ford. Carter carried nearly every southern state and several large northern and midwestern states, pulling back many Democrats who had deserted McGovern but not demonstrating as much strength as pre-McGovern Democrats had shown. Much more successful in the congressional elections, his party maintained control of Congress by wide margins.
At the outset of his administration, Carter’s position was not substantially stronger than Ford’s had been. He had been elected rather than appointed to office and did not have to contend with a Congress controlled by the opposition party, but he had won by only a narrow margin, 50.1 percent to 48 percent, and turnout had been low, with only 54 percent of the eligible voters going to the polls.
The Outsider in Washington
Early on, Carter devoted much of his energy to building popular support. He made great efforts to demonstrate that he was a “people’s president,” not an “imperial” one. He preached against the sin of pride and spoke of his own limitations. As one commentator observed, he sought in a variety of ways to dramatize “the qualities of morality, frugality, simplicity, candor and compassion for which the voters had been searching.” He hoped to restore confidence in government as well as to establish confidence in himself; he cultivated “the people” rather than “the interests,” suggesting that the former were good, the latter bad. He relied heavily on both television and direct contacts to accomplish these objectives. And he seemed quite successful.
At the same time and although Carter had campaigned as an “outsider,” a critic of America’s leadership of the recent past, he drew into his administration people with experience, including experience in Washington. Cyrus Vance became secretary of state; Harold Brown, secretary of defense; James Schlesinger, presidential assistant for energy; and Joseph Califano, secretary of health, education, and welfare. The president also courted business executives, appointing W. Michael Blumenthal as secretary of the treasury. Corporate law, as usual, was also well represented, this time by Vance, Califano, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Patricia Roberts Harris, and Attorney General Griffin Bell; academia supplied Brown, Harris, Secretary of Commerce Juanita Kreps, Secretary of Labor Ray Marshall, and Zbigniew Brzezinski, the national security adviser. Secretary of Transportation Brock Adams and Secretary of Agriculture Bob Berglund were former congressmen; Secretary of Interior Cecil Andrus had been governor of Idaho. Most had served previously in the national capital. The many roles played by Robert Strauss, a former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, symbolized the importance of established people in the administration. Obviously, Carter’s hopes of building support with the establishment outweighed any desire to enlarge his image as an outsider.
Some outsiders did hold important positions in the administration. In particular, the White House staff was dominated by Georgians, including Hamilton Jordan, Jody Powell, and Stuart Eizenstat, who had worked with Carter at home but had never served in Washington. Carter recognized their lack of experience there but had great confidence in them.
The president was quite sensitive to and supportive of the demands of politically active blacks and women. There were now more than forty-three hundred blacks in elected office, more than four times as many as a decade earlier, and they were sufficiently numerous in Congress to have their own caucus. Blacks had moved forward at an especially rapid pace in southern politics, where the number of black voters doubled in the thirteen years following passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. And blacks, including Juanita Kreps and Patricia Harris, had some influence in the Carter administration. Wade H. Mc-Cree served as solicitor general, Clifford L. Alexander was the first black secretary of the army, Mary Berry was the top official in Washington on educational matters prior to the establishment of the Department of Education, Eleanor Holmes Norton chaired the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and Franklin Delano Raines served on the White House staff.
Andrew Young, as United States ambassador to the United Nations, was the most prominent representative of the political advance of southern blacks. He, in fact, was quite conscious of what he represented. “We were protest and now we are it,” he proclaimed to a largely black audience in 1977. A clergyman and one of Martin Luther King’s aides, Young, in 1972, had become the first black elected to Congress from Georgia since Reconstruction. By 1976 he had allied with Carter, helping him move to victory. After the latter moved into the White House, Young became ambassador to the United Nations and emerged quickly as an outspoken and controversial member of the administration, criticizing racism, advocating majority (black) rule in southern Africa, and proclaiming that the American civil rights movement contained lessons of value for black Africans. Eventually, in 1979, Young would become too controversial and would be forced to resign, but Carter would replace him with another black, Donald F. McHenry.
Although Carter refused to endorse all features of the women’s movement, he did give it considerable support. He objected to child care centers and abortion, and Congress, supported by the president, Secretary Califano, and the Supreme Court, restricted the use of public funds for abortions, making it difficult for poor women to obtain them. On the other hand, Carter put women in important positions and appointed two, Kreps and Harris, to his original cabinet and a third, Shirley Hufstedler, secretary of education, when that post was created in 1979. Another woman, Patricia Derrian, played a leading role in the human rights campaign, and still others, including Margaret (“Midge”) Costanza, Anne Wexler, and Mary Berry, as well as the president’s wife, served significantly. Rosalynn Carter, for example, campaigned for ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment. Even more important, she was a close adviser to her husband.
At the same time that he appointed both newcomers and veterans of the Washington scene, Carter hoped to improve the performance of government. He wanted to raise its ethical level and relied heavily on rhetoric for this purpose. He wished also to make it more efficient and effective, and thus, as he had in Georgia, he pushed for government reorganization, eventually enjoying some victories in this area.
At first, Carter’s methods seemed to enhance his popularity. By March, over 70 percent of the people, according to the pollsters, approved of his performance. When the battles over policy became hotter, he slipped some, but in July, more than 60 percent of the people still approved. By fall, however, less than 50 percent approved, and by May 1978, the figure was below 40 percent. Carter, it seemed obvious, had not ended the leadership crisis.
The Lance Affair
The turning point had come in late summer 1977 and had been produced by the troubles of another Georgian, Bert Lance, the director of the Office of Management and Budget. During August and September, journalists and government investigators subjected his earlier career as a banker to careful scrutiny and discovered that it contained many questionable practices. Journalists and politicians called for his resignation, as did most people who wrote to the White House or talked to pollsters. Carter continued to express great admiration for, and confidence in, his friend. But the situation became intolerable when a Senate hearing supported the work of government investigators. Before the end of September, Lance resigned, encouraged to do so by Carter because of the damage the controversy was doing, though the president retained confidence in Lance’s integrity and believed he was being persecuted. To others, the episode challenged Carter’s claim that he demanded a higher code of ethics than his predecessors had. In 1981, however, Lance—and also Carter—would feel vindicated when a jury acquitted the former budget officer of nine charges of bank fraud and the Justice Department dropped the other charges.
As his popularity rose and fell, Carter pushed forward along several lines of policy. Foreign affairs commanded much of his time, and though he had grown up in the 1930s and early 1940s and had served in the navy during World War II and during the years that saw the establishment of the Truman policy of the containment of Communism, he had been affected by the mood of withdrawal from world affairs that had been gaining strength in the United States for a decade. In addition, even though they had served in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations and had supported their policies in Vietnam, many of the men Carter appointed to the top spots in international and military affairs had been influenced by the American failure in Vietnam and by détente. Secretary Brown indicated just before taking office that he had learned from Vietnam that “we must become more cautious about … interventions.” Carter, according to observers, had by then “made it abundantly clear that the United States ought not to go plunging militarily into under-developed countries.” Soon after taking office, he praised the nation for having overcome its “inordinate fear of Communism,” and Andrew Young suggested that the administration rejected “military activism.”
Carter did embark upon an international campaign for human rights. In part, he did so to distinguish himself from Nixon, Ford, and Kissinger, although the campaign made use of the 1975 Helsinki treaty that the Ford administration had helped to develop. In addition to affirming the boundaries established after World War II in Eastern Europe, the treaty contained promises to respect human rights. Carter hoped the campaign would enable the United States to “regain the moral stature we once had.” He explained, “We’ve been through some sordid and embarrassing years recently, and I felt like it was time for our country to hold a beacon light … that would rally our citizens to a cause.” But was this policy a response to criticism of past practices as much as it was a basis for renewed activism? “In a nation supposedly instructed in its limitations by its recent failures,” a critic charged, “Jimmy Carter … has demonstrated how little America has learned”; Carter expressed “that traditional American delusion that, if only America can devise the right … formula, then the world will stop being what it is, and become what we wish it to be.”
In any event, Carter had difficulty maintaining a firm course on human rights. He regarded this crusade as the centerpiece—the “fundamental tenet”—of his foreign policy. He criticized many countries, not just the Soviet Union, for violating human rights. But many people—inside as well as outside the United States, State Department officials as well as journalists, allies as well as opponents—charged that the campaign was meddling, harmful to international relations, destructive of détente, and a return to the Cold War. The administration often retreated under pressure.
The campaign had mixed results. To the distress of European leaders, it infuriated the Soviet Union, contributing to the emergence of what some called a New Cold War. On the other hand, it pressured authoritarian regimes in Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa and encouraged democratic forces in those parts of the world.
Carter encountered great difficulties on an issue for which groundwork had been laid by the Johnson, Nixon, and Ford administrations. Foes of two treaties dealing with the Panama Canal forced him to battle for months and nearly defeated him. The key feature of the treaties was to give Panama control of the canal by the year 2000. Opponents in both parties, including Ronald Reagan, actively campaigned against the treaties, charging that the documents would surrender American property that was vital to national security. To these people, the treaties seemed to symbolize American decline.
To the defenders, who denied that the United States owned or had sovereignty over the canal, the treaties represented the proper way for a great nation to behave. Moreover, they insisted, the terms would permit the United States to prevent hostile powers from gaining control of the canal and would enable the United States to use it when necessary. Furthermore, they maintained, the canal was losing its strategic and economic importance. The massive debate, with Carter as an active participant, raged for nearly eight months and ended in victories for the president in March and April 1978. But, in spite of help from Ford and Kissinger, the treaties won by the narrowest of margins. And success in the Senate did not end things, for it was followed by a long battle in the House, lasting until June 1979, over implementation.
Picking up where Kissinger left off, Carter also worked for a new strategic arms limitation treaty (SALT II) with the Soviet Union but did not enjoy even a narrow victory. Knowledgeable about nuclear weapons because of his naval service, he feared the destructive power already in existence and hoped to halt the spread of such weapons to other nations and to check the arms race. He pressed the Soviets to agree to cuts in the nuclear arsenals, but Soviet leaders rejected his first proposal. Carter pressed forward, aided by Vance and special arms negotiator Paul Warnke. Negotiations did not break down, and signs of progress emerged from time to time. Yet, foes of a new treaty, such as Senator Henry Jackson, fearful that it would weaken American security, posed the possibility that no treaty acceptable to the Soviets would be ratified by the Senate. The negotiators did not finish work until 1979, and then Republican and Democratic foes in the Senate argued that the Soviets had triumphed in the negotiations, brushing aside the administration’s contention that the agreed-upon limits on strategic forces would make the world a less dangerous place and insisting that the United States must increase military spending substantially. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan weakened prospects still more, persuading Carter in January 1980 to call upon the senators to postpone debate. He continued to favor eventual ratification of SALT II but no longer pressed for it.
The Middle East and Camp David
Worried about the possibilities of Soviet-American confrontation and a new embargo on Middle Eastern oil, Carter sought a “comprehensive” settlement in the Middle East but again ran into tough problems. Apparently seeing Israel’s behavior as the key, he pressed Israel to participate in multinational negotiations that would include the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), to agree to withdraw to “defensible borders” close to those it had had before the 1967 war, and to accept a homeland for the Palestinian Arabs in exchange for Arab recognition of Israel’s right to exist and conduct normal relations. Carter, Vance, and others met frequently with Middle Eastern leaders, and the president also attempted to draw the Soviet Union into the negotiating process.
Although Arab leaders welcomed Carter’s efforts, they alarmed Israel and its friends in the United States. The Arabs hoped that American pressures would succeed, but Menachem Begin, the new Israeli prime minister, was a Polish Jew haunted by memories of the Holocaust, influenced by visions of the boundaries of biblical times, and the leader of a hard-line party. Thus, he tried to persuade American leaders that few concessions could be made. Israel’s friends in the United States, and they were numerous and influential, were convinced of the strategic importance of Israel, as well as its moral significance. They believed that Carter did not support it as firmly as his predecessors had and reminded him that the PLO was committed to the destruction of the country. They also expressed alarm about the proposals on boundaries and pointed to dangers in efforts to draw the Soviet Union into the negotiating process. Some charged that oil explained the direction that American policies were taking. These pressures forced Carter to insist that he supported Israel, would not harm it, and would not impose a settlement, but he did regard Begin as too inflexible.
A surprise move by Anwar as-Sadat, the president of Egypt, changed the Middle East situation. In November 1977 he visited Israel to initiate face-to-face negotiations between the Egyptians and the Israelis. His country’s severe economic problems, the need for peace, and concern about some features of the American peace efforts, including encouragement of Soviet participation, influenced the move. It divided the Arabs, since most refused to talk with a nation whose right to exist they denied, and produced fresh conflict between Egypt and the Soviet Union. But, coupled with Begin’s refusal to make major concessions and an Israeli raid into Lebanon, the move gained new admirers for Sadat in the United States and somewhat greater sympathy for the Arab cause.
Carter did what he could to assist the Egyptian president, but after a promising beginning, negotiations ground to a halt as the two sides learned how far apart they were on key issues. Carter then persuaded the two leaders to meet with him at Camp David, Maryland. There, the three men talked for thirteen days in September 1978 and the president achieved a great success: a “framework for peace” in the Middle East and a draft of a peace treaty between Egypt and Israel. To promote the signing of the treaty, Carter traveled to the Middle East. The treaty was soon approved and then signed in Washington on 26 March 1979, and the old enemies established full diplomatic relations. Israel had agreed to withdraw from the Sinai, but big issues continued to divide the Middle East and generate violence there and problems for the American president.
Earlier in 1978, the Carter administration had announced an arms deal, hoping that it would strengthen Arab moderates and American influence. The deal would send the nation’s best fighter plane, the F-15, not only to Israel, as had been expected, but also to Saudi Arabia, an oil-rich country controlled by antiradical and anti-Soviet leaders, and to Egypt. Israel and many of its American friends opposed the deal, doubting that the Saudis could be counted on to restrain Israel’s enemies and avoid hostile acts against Israel. To critics, the deal indicated that Carter and his top adviser on foreign affairs, Brzezinski, were insensitive to Israel’s security needs and were tilting toward Saudi Arabia. The debate was hot, but the president won when Congress agreed to the arrangement.
China and Taiwan
The administration improved relations with China but paid a price for doing so. Both Vance and Brzezinski visited the People’s Republic, eager to break the diplomatic stalemate that had prevailed since 1972 and to normalize relations between the two countries. The Chinese, flanked by the Soviet Union and Soviet-influenced Vietnam, viewed the Soviets as aggressive and worried about what appeared to be an American retreat from containment. Brzezinski, who saw the mounting tension between the Communist giants as opening an opportunity for the United States, assured the Chinese that the United States would remain strong in Asia and would check the Soviets. Taiwan appeared to be a stumbling block. Seeking a formula that would enable the United States to abandon the regime there and recognize Beijing without suffering severe political damage at home and abroad, the Carter administration experienced frequent frustrations. Finally, on 1 January 1979, it recognized the People’s Republic as the sole government of China and reestablished normal diplomatic relations with it, breaking its official ties with Taiwan to reach this objective. Taiwan, its friends in the United States, and the Soviets denounced the settlement, but the outcome pleased the president.
The International Economy
The problems Carter confronted abroad were economic as well as political. They included the opening up of a trade deficit as Americans bought more from other countries, especially manufactured goods from Japan and Germany and oil from the Middle East, than those countries purchased in the United States. In addition to working for the reduction of oil imports, the administration pressed its allies, which now had strong economies, to buy more American products, but, to the especially great distress of the American automobile industry, the efforts failed to close the trade gap, and the failure gave a boost to protectionist sentiment in the United States. The administration also struggled unsuccessfully with a weakening of the dollar.
Carter had inherited a wide variety of tough problems in international affairs, and in dealing with them, he was hampered by confusion and uncertainty in Congress and the nation concerning the role the nation should play in the world. A similar state of mind prevailed in the closely related area of military policy, and that state of mind affected the administration. At the beginning of his presidency, Carter pardoned Vietnam War draft evaders and announced that American troops would be withdrawn from South Korea. He also decided against construction of the B-1 bomber as a replacement for the aging B-52, regarding the proposed airplane as costly and obsolete, and also decided to cut back on the navy’s shipbuilding program. Champions of military power protested, charging that he was not sufficiently sensitive to the threat of the Soviet Union.
In recent years, the Soviets had strengthened their forces and influence, expanding the army, developing a large navy, and increasing their arms and technicians in the Third World. As Carter’s concern about these developments mounted, he alarmed critics of military spending by calling for a significant increase in the military budget for fiscal 1979, a substantial strengthening of North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) forces, and the development and deployment of a new weapon, the neutron bomb. Next, he dismayed advocates of greater military strength by first deciding that the bomb would not be built and then announcing that production would be postponed while the nation waited to see how the Soviets behaved.
In both diplomatic and military matters, the president often found it difficult to stick with his original intentions. He made concessions to demands for more military spending and more activity in Africa and became less critical of American arms sales. He both responded to criticism of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and sought to restore its effectiveness, regarding it as an essential instrument that had been misused.
Critics, including Henry Kissinger, Henry Jackson, and many Republican senators, found him weak and ineffective, confusing and confused. They suggested that his administration had “seen that its neat theories about the world do not fit the difficult realities” and that “it must now come to grips with the world as it is.” One close observer, Meg Greenfield of Newsweek magazine, wrote in 1978 that while “many of our politicians, more traumatized than instructed by that miserable war [Vietnam], tend to see Vietnams everywhere,” more and more congressmen “seem … to be getting bored with their own post-Vietnam bemusement,” and “under great provocation from abroad, Carter himself is beginning to move.”
At the same time that Carter struggled to come to grips with international problems, he also had to grapple with domestic ones, passed on to him by Ford. Unemployment, inflation, and the energy crisis topped the list. At first, slow economic growth and substantial unemployment seemed especially pressing, for 7.3 percent of the workforce did not have jobs when he took office, and the percentage jumped to 7.5 as a result of a severe winter that over-taxed the supplies of natural gas and oil. To stimulate the economy and supply more jobs, Carter proposed a $23 billion to $30 billion program for the next eighteen months. Although the program would increase spending on job-creating programs, it emphasized tax cuts in order to encourage businessmen to increase capital investments. Congress passed much of this economic stimulus package.
Before Congress acted and as economic growth accelerated and unemployment declined, Carter dropped a major feature of his economic program, a tax rebate; shifted his attention to inflation, which hovered around 7 percent; and strengthened his resistance to costly federal job programs and a higher level of spending on welfare. Rejecting price and wage controls, he made several anti-inflation proposals and promised to balance the budget by the end of his term. Yet, when the economy slowed, his concern about unemployment mounted, and he returned to plans for tax cuts. But inflation escalated in 1978, approaching the 1974 level, and Carter soon defined it as the nation’s major problem, scaled down his tax-cut proposal, and tried to get prices under control by resisting proposals for increased government spending, promising a balanced budget sometime soon, and using verbal pressure—”jawboning”—to force corporations and unions to exercise restraint in price increases and wage demands. Although he relied heavily on the tested skills of Robert Strauss in the anti-inflation campaign, success eluded him. Spurred by sharp increases in the price of Middle Eastern oil, inflation soared well above 10 percent in 1979 and 1980, and Carter’s new chair of the Federal Reserve Board, Paul Volcker, moved quickly to raise interest rates and reduce the money supply.
Carter’s somewhat confusing course, influenced by difficulties in deciding whether unemployment or inflation was the greater problem, failed to satisfy the many groups in American life. Businessmen quickly lost confidence in his administration, troubled by divisions within it and by its proposals for tax reform and for higher taxes to protect Social Security. Corporate leaders also insisted that they did not have as much responsibility for inflation as jawboning implied; and conservatives, in and out of corporate ranks, insisted that government spending and deficits were responsible. Reflective of the decline in business confidence, the stock market dropped sharply several times.
Groups that had given Carter his victory in 1976 also grew unhappy with his performance. Union leaders, insistent that big business caused inflation and that workers were its victims, not its cause, lost some of their earlier confidence in the president when he endorsed a bill to facilitate organizing efforts but did not prevent a filibuster in the Senate from blocking passage. Furthermore, labor leaders joined liberals, most notably, Senator Edward Kennedy, in complaining that the administration was not doing enough to reduce unemployment, solve the problems of the poor, or establish national health insurance, and they demanded more government spending. To many of them, Carter seemed little more than a southern Ford. Farmers, dissatisfied with the prices they received for their products, protested against administration farm policies and forced Carter to accept higher price supports than he favored. Still further, many westerners in Congress rose up in anger when, in an effort to cut spending, Carter opposed water projects they favored, and they compelled the president to compromise on the issue.
Although black leaders had reasons to be pleased with Carter, including his support for affirmative action in the Bakke case, they objected to some features of his performance. Believing they deserved more influence in the White House, some reminded him that he would not be president if blacks had not voted for him in such large numbers, and charged that he was not paying enough attention to the problems of black Americans, especially the poorer ones. They joined with white liberals in insisting that everyone had a right to a job and that government must do more to increase the number available. To blacks, at least those who had not entered the middle class, unemployment rather than inflation was the most worrisome problem.
As he grappled with international and economic problems, Carter attempted to build support for an energy program. Energy was, in fact, one of his biggest concerns. In April 1977 he introduced his solutions, employing dramatic terms in doing so. His proposals emphasized conservation and envisioned a smooth transition to an era of scarce and high-priced oil; they relied heavily on the taxing power to encourage people to shift from large automobiles to small ones, to cut back on the miles they drove, to insulate their homes and workplaces, and to shift from natural gas and oil to coal, nuclear power, and solar energy. Warning of a bleak future, praising conservation, appealing to patriotism, and criticizing the “special interests,” the president, others in the administration, and the Democratic National Committee waged a massive campaign to build support.
At first, although he had not developed his proposals in cooperation with congressional leaders, Carter seemed likely to succeed. Congress endorsed his proposal for creation of the Department of Energy and his selection of James Schlesinger to head it, and the House—with Speaker Thomas P. (“Tip”) O’Neill of Massachusetts cooperating with the administration and providing effective leadership—quickly passed energy legislation that conformed with the administration’s proposals.
In the Senate, however, the energy package ran into powerful opposition. A temporary surplus of oil, dislike for the tax features, and demands for deregulation of newly discovered natural gas contributed to the resistance. Republicans and southern Democrats, with Senator Russell Long of Louisiana, head of the Senate Finance Committee, playing an especially large role, combined to revise the package, incorporating the ideas of producers, who assured the people that freeing the industry would lead to solutions. Liberal Democrats and administration representatives battled against them. But lacking support from consumer groups and environmentalists, they lost on key issues, encouraging Carter to denounce the giant oil companies in October. When Senate and House conferees engaged in lengthy negotiations to iron out their differences, the administration embarked on a new, large-scale campaign on behalf of its proposals, with Carter postponing a foreign trip so as to concentrate on building support. But dominated by other concerns, the public was not moved by the campaign, and the administration felt compelled to make concessions.
In spite of Carter’s avowed populism, his proposals did not have enough support from the people to overcome opposition from the interests. In fact, most people opposed his energy package. By emphasizing conservation rather than the development of new resources, the program seemed to call upon Americans to change their lifestyle, and most did not want to do that. Furthermore, most people did not believe the energy problem was as serious as the president suggested. With confidence in Carter declining, his ability to shape public opinion on this issue suffered, and he could not rally public support with his attacks on the big oil companies. In addition, the program’s heavy reliance on taxes ran head-on into a growing revolt against taxes. Thus, the people did not rise up and help Carter by putting pressure on Congress. Consequently the legislation that finally passed in October 1978, although not unimportant, fell far short of his desires.
As the president struggled with the politics of energy, a coal strike erupted. Lasting 110 days in the winter of 1977-1978, it added to Carter’s difficulties. Coal had taken on renewed importance because of the nation’s energy problems, and it figured prominently in Carter’s solutions. As the strike continued, he resisted pressure to invoke an injunction, hoping that the normal negotiating process would produce a satisfactory outcome. Yet he and others in the administration applied whatever pressure seemed appropriate to them. The miners rebuffed the president, turning down a contract the administration endorsed, thereby persuading Carter to resort to the injunction, a move that further angered organized labor and did not return many miners to work. Before it ended, the strike had forced many industries and schools to curtail their operations or close down completely. The episode increased awareness of the importance of coal and added to criticism of Carter as a weak president.
The energy situation worsened in 1979. A revolution in Iran reduced oil supplies, and the members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) raised oil prices sharply. At the same time, an alarming accident at a nuclear power plant at Three Mile Island, Pennsylvania, enlarged doubts about nuclear energy. After holding a “domestic summit conference” at Camp David, Carter gave a major speech on energy, calling for effective action to reduce dependence on foreign supplies. Following another legislative battle, in which some Democratic legislators opposed the president, he achieved some success in 1980. Although Congress had not given him all he requested, what he had achieved in 1978 and 1980 encouraged him to point with pride to lower consumption of oil, lower imports, and more coal production.
The Hostage Crisis
The consequences for the United States of the Iranian revolution were not limited to higher oil prices. Since 1945, the United States had expressed strong interest in this oil-rich country, opposing Soviet efforts to gain a position there in 1945-1946 and opposing also the nationalization of the Iranian oil industry under the leadership of Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh in 1951-1953. After contributing to the overthrow of Mossadegh and obtaining access to Iranian oil for American companies, the American government supplied large amounts of aid to the shah, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, and to his efforts to westernize the country and make it a military power. Those efforts aroused the ire of the Muslim clergy, and the oppressiveness of the shah’s regime generated opposition from others. Revolts erupted and gained strength during 1978, forcing the shah to flee early the following year and leading to the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran under the leadership of a Shiite Muslim leader, Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini, who was determined that Islam, not Western influences, should reign in Iran. On 4 November 1979, shortly after the shah entered a New York hospital for treatment of cancer, several thousand Iranian youths seized the American embassy in Teheran and took most members of the staff hostage, demanding that the United States return the shah.
Carter faced another enormously difficult problem. He tried to free the hostages without taking military action, relying chiefly on diplomatic and economic pressures, including the freezing of Iranian assets in the United States. He obtained help from others, such as United Nations Secretary General Kurt Waldheim. Thirteen female and black staff members were released shortly after they had been seized, but the others remained captive. In April 1980 a frustrated president broke with past policy and (over the opposition of Secretary Vance) authorized a military rescue operation. It had to be aborted, however, when three of the eight helicopters involved developed mechanical problems, and, in pulling out, one of the helicopters collided with a transport plane, killing eight men and injuring others. The captors released an ill hostage in July, and the Iranian government, now suffering an invasion from Iraq, soon announced conditions for the release of the remaining fiftytwo, but more weeks would pass before they were free.
In the meantime, in December 1979, the Soviets mounted a large-scale invasion of Afghanistan to protect its Marxist regime. Washington interpreted this as an extension of their ambitions and a threat to American interests in the Persian Gulf area and responded with various forms of pressure, including a grain embargo, a boycott of the Moscow Olympics, reestablishment of registration for the military draft, warnings against any efforts to gain control of the Persian Gulf area, and a sizable military buildup. Carter had embraced Brzezinski’s very negative view of the Soviet Union, but the pressures did not persuade the Soviets to withdraw, and the episode doomed SALT II.
To further complicate matters for Carter, his younger brother, Billy, came under attack in the summer of 1980. A jovial fellow with a drinking problem, he had already embarrassed his more earnest brother on several occasions. Now, critics filed charges concerning his connections with Libya, a country ruled by the dictator Mu’ammar al-Gadhafi, a financial backer of international terrorism. The complaints included the charge that the president had used American intelligence information to assist Billy. The latter had made a deal with an American oil company to buy Libyan crude oil, had obtained a $220,000 “loan” from the Libyans, and had made various efforts to promote Libyan and Arab interests in the United States. Senate investigators concluded that Libya had cultivated Billy’s friendship in hope of gaining influence in Washington and that by responding to these overtures he had acted contrary to the interests of the United States and merited severe criticism. The senators also concluded that Billy had no influence but that the president and some of his aides deserved criticism for ill-advised use of Billy to enlist Libyan aid in the hostage crisis and for possibly giving Libyan officials a false impression that he had influence in Washington. But the investigators found no evidence that anyone had done anything illegal or seriously improper to help the president’s brother. The episode damaged the president for only a short time.
Disaffection of the Public
Well before the troubles in Iran and Afghanistan, political commentators had begun to predict that Carter would serve for only one term. To many commentators, he seemed to be a failure and responsible for his own difficulties. Although he was intelligent, worked hard, and was honest, sincere, and emotionally secure, he seemed to suffer from inexperience in dealing in Washington and from heavy reliance on inexperienced advisers. He tried to do too much himself and did not have a chief of staff coordinating work in the White House and its relations with others. He appeared to be indecisive, made too many proposals at a time, did not define his priorities clearly, and did not have a carefully articulated philosophy to help him make such a definition. He seemed to have contempt for the realities of the Washington scene and to be uninterested in working closely with organized groups, congressmen, and his party. He frequently denounced Congress—a Congress controlled by his own party—as dominated by special interests like the oil companies. And he seemed weak in his dealings with people, retreated too readily under pressure, and needed to be much more forceful.
Carter, realizing that many of these criticisms were justified, made changes in 1978. He added some experienced people to the White House staff and conferred more authority on Jordan for the management of it. He made greater efforts to cultivate congressmen and other people in the capital, and at the same time, he went out among the people, beyond Washington. He supplied a definition of his priorities and tried to deal more forcefully with members of his administration, congressmen, and others.
Such efforts did not give Carter a long-lasting boost. Approval of his performance jumped to nearly 60 percent following the Camp David accords, but by the spring of 1979, the rating was below 40 percent again. Many people now saw him as an ineffective president, incapable of moving the nation forward. All of this depressed the president. In July, after meeting at Camp David with a wide range of prominent people, he tried to revive confidence with a major speech that defined a “crisis of spirit” as the country’s major problem and called for “confidence and a sense of community.” Promising once again to supply the kind of leadership required, he also tried to strengthen his administration by making changes in his cabinet and took another journey of contact with the people. But his approval rating dropped below 25 percent.
The president was trying to provide leadership, but he occupied an office, and presided over a system, that had been discredited for many people by past performances. To one observer from the left, it seemed that “the widespread loss of confidence in our political institutions and leaders, the lack of respect for authority, the alienation from the official values of the society, even the revulsion from politics [were] sensible responses to the debacle accomplished by those in authority.”
Many Americans believed that their governments had shown themselves to be immoral, inefficient, and ineffective. They seemed to be very active but to be accomplishing very little; they seemed too big to work. To many people, the tax system seemed unfair, in that it favored the wealthy. To many others, it merely seemed too burdensome for the benefits governments conferred. In California in 1978, the antitax feeling reached a new high with the passage of Proposition 13, which slashed property taxes and threatened funds for schools and other services. Such moves reflected deep unhappiness with what governments were doing and with government officials, as well as with the size of tax bills.
People on the right as well as the left expressed the spirit of discontent. Many intellectuals on the right and left were united in their belief that American realities were sordid. American leaders did not deserve confidence. It would be only a matter of time, according to this scenario, before the nation discovered that Carter was as corrupt as the men who had gone before him. Such skepticism was not restricted to intellectuals and people influenced by them. White-collar workers, blue-collar workers, and middle-class Americans of various occupations also felt like strangers in a nation controlled by a liberal establishment hostile to their values. Country music, popular throughout the nation with working-class, rural, and small-town people, sang of the superiority of the rural South, a surviving symbol of a vanished America, and expressed profound discontent with the now dominant style of life. Although seemingly filled with love of country, the music contained resentment and hostility toward the people in the big cities, who seemed responsible for the rise of the new way of life. Carter, as a small-town southerner, had some appeal for country music fans, but he quickly lost much of it when he became, and behaved like, a man of power.
Evangelical Christianity, a reviving and fast-growing movement of 30 million to 40 million people, also reflected deep discontent with what America, and especially American leaders, had become. “Americans are undergoing a crisis of meaning and self-confidence,” one observer noted, “and large numbers of them are turning or returning to religion, usually of the pietistic and evangelical kind.” Those in the Southern Baptist contingent especially had had high hopes for Carter’s presidency, since they considered him one of them, but he could not satisfy their yearnings for the redemption of government through the election of honest, moral, and simple leaders. Although Carter’s Baptist faith continued to influence him and to offend some big-city Americans, he came to seem to many evangelicals as just another politician. Some evangelicals had doubted his religious commitment from the outset, and many of those caught up in what has been labeled “a third Great Awakening” were uninterested in public life and contemporary issues.
Carter also had to contend with a skeptical, often hostile press that had been deeply affected by the traumas of the recent past. Strengthened by the development of television, the press was animated by a new spirit. Often resentful of the efforts of past presidents to manipulate them, media people now frequently expressed mistrust of the presidency and were much more likely to criticize a president than to be used by him. They often aimed their fire at Carter. He, in turn, resented press criticism and frequently expressed a low opinion of newspeople.
In addition, Carter had to deal with an active and critical Congress. Embarrassed by charges of past subservience to the White House, Congress had become more assertive—more determined not to be a rubber stamp. Many new members, shaped by recent experiences, especially Vietnam and Watergate, no longer deferred to senior members, insisted upon a new code of ethics, and demanded that the president avoid the “excesses” of the past at home and abroad. Senior members, possessed of a strong sense of pride and independence, were quick to press views that diverged from those of the president, even when he was a member of their own party. Furthermore, all members of Congress had staffs that were much larger and more professional than they had been only a few years earlier. To many people on Capitol Hill, including many Democrats, it seemed that Carter was not sufficiently respectful of them and their ways, did not consult with them in a timely and consistent fashion, and asked them for too much. Thus, relations between Carter and Congress were seldom smooth and frequently hostile, even after his efforts at improvement in 1978.
Furthermore, the president had, to a significant degree, lost the presidency’s strongest allies and defenders, the liberals. Since the days of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, they had advocated a strong White House, seeing it as the most effective promoter of broad and desirable national interests. But recent events had changed them; they, too, distrusted that office and offered new support for a Congress and press corps that checked, rather than cooperated with, the president. In fact, these new liberals were well represented in the press, Congress, congressional staffs, the bureaucracy, and the public-interest pressure groups.
Carter suffered from still another problem. He could not rally the public by making promises similar to those made by leaders in the past. He could not easily promise victories abroad, continuous growth, and ever higher standards of living. The American defeat in Vietnam, the new complexities of the international situation, and the energy crisis mocked such promises.
Carter understood the difficulties he faced and was, in a sense, a representative of them. Aware of the public’s disenchantment with government, he had run against Washington in 1976. Although he frequently turned to government, rather than the private sector, to deal with problems, such as energy, and thought more of making big government more efficient through reorganization than of scaling it down, he often indicated that he did not expect as much from government as some of his predecessors had and many of his liberal contemporaries still did.
Although an active president, he carefully stayed within lines that some of his predecessors had crossed. Although he was active abroad, he worried about the dangers that world affairs contained. He was also sensitive to the implications of the energy crisis, much more so than most Americans. Carter often expressed a sense of the limits on things. He talked of the limits of his own powers and those of the government and the nation. He urged people not to expect too much. Few people derived inspiration from such rhetoric. In addition to his troubles at home, Carter suffered from criticism from his Western allies. Leaders in Western Europe had low opinions of his leadership and his policies.
Not surprisingly, Carter was a one-term president and even had to struggle to obtain renomination by his own party. In the 1980 primaries, Senator Edward Kennedy challenged him, arguing that Carter had betrayed the liberal principles of his party. The president refused to campaign until May, maintaining that the difficulties in Iran and Afghanistan forced him to stay in the White House; and Kennedy, while winning several primaries, did fail to defeat him, in part because Carter used all of the devices at a president’s disposal, in part because people for a time rallied behind their president in the Iran and Afghanistan crises, and in part because of concern about Kennedy’s moral character. Against Kennedy, a militant liberal, Carter appeared to use quite effectively the argument that people should recognize the great difficulties he faced and not expect too much.
The victories in the primaries did not lead to a smashing success at the Democratic National Convention. The Republicans met first; by the time they did so, Reagan, their leading contender, was ahead of the president in the polls, and during their convention, Reagan moved far ahead of Carter. By August, only about 22 percent of the people, according to the polls, approved of Carter, a new low for presidents, even lower than Nixon in 1974 and Truman in 1951. Fearing that the president would lead the entire ticket to defeat, some Democrats tried to dump him, but they could not come up with a strong contender. “There are no heroes anymore,” one explained. So the party nominated Carter without enthusiasm or optimism and remained divided, with Kennedy supplying little support for the ticket.
Election of 1980
In the general election, Carter faced two opponents, Reagan and an independent, Congressman John Anderson of Illinois. Although the economy was plagued by problems, including high levels of inflation and unemployment, each candidate insisted that it had not gone into permanent decline. Carter talked of economic renewal and promised to achieve this by carefully selected spending programs and tax cuts. At the same time, he championed environmental reforms, continued to emphasize conservation as the solution to the energy crisis, and criticized Reagan for proposing surrender to the “merchants of oil.” Anderson, too, stressed conservation as the way to guarantee continued growth and proposed a huge increase in the gas tax as one way to encourage conservation.
Critical of some of the conservation measures, Reagan seemed confident that the economy could grow indefinitely. In fact, he proposed a “strategy of growth.” To accomplish that, he would cut both income taxes and government regulation of business. He and his platform emphasized energy production, not conservation. He insisted that the nation could get all the oil it needed if the oil industry’s opportunities for profit were enlarged and a nuisance, the Department of Energy, were abolished. Along a similar line, he attacked the environmental movement and the government regulations it had successfully promoted.
The candidates said less about race, and none called for major changes in this area. In fact, the chief issue appeared to be the survival of the changes that had taken place in recent years. As a consistent supporter of civil rights legislation, Anderson had no trouble with his record, but as a conservative spokesman since the early 1960s and an opponent of the civil rights legislation of 1964, Reagan had some trouble with his. As a Georgian, so did Carter, although somewhat less; his identification with right-wing southerners in the 1960s was offset by his closeness to Andrew Young and other blacks in the 1970s.
Reagan implied rather vaguely that Carter had some relations with the Ku Klux Klan, and Carter implied more clearly that Reagan was a racist. Although Carter rather quickly denied that he had made such a charge, his words were part of a larger effort to suggest that Reagan would, if elected, set the clock back in this area. The effort took advantage of Reagan’s opposition to the 1964 act and his endorsement by the Klan, an endorsement he repudiated. Reagan also said that he no longer opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, explaining that it had not worked as he had feared but instead had worked quite well. He called attention to his appointment of many blacks to office while serving as governor of California, and he paid more attention to blacks during the campaign than his party had in its convention. He and his party did continue to oppose the busing of school-children to achieve racial balance.
Wisely perhaps, the candidates tried to ignore the hot issue of relations between men and women. The candidates seemed satisfied to leave it to political participants who were not running for office, including the evangelicals who were campaigning against homosexual rights, sex education in the schools, and other issues of this kind. Anderson associated himself with some of the proposals for change, including liberalization of laws on abortion and protection for the rights of homosexuals. Reagan was quite clearly on the other side of the fence. His platform called for a constitutional amendment banning abortions and for curbs on the use of public funds for them, and he agreed. The platform also ended national Republican support for the Equal Rights Amendment, which he opposed while insisting that he favored equality for women. His positions on these issues were part of his advocacy of traditional values, a major Reagan theme. The platform favored prayer in the schools, and he advocated teaching the biblical theory of creation along with the scientific theory of evolution in the schools, a position championed by critics of evolution.
Carter’s positions were somewhere between Reagan’s and Anderson’s. The Democratic platform contained a strong plank on the Equal Rights Amendment and abortion, reflecting the growing strength of women in the party. The president’s own stand on these issues did not fully satisfy feminists.
The candidates spoke much more frequently and also more clearly on the issue of America’s role in the world, and none championed a small role. Anderson did oppose some of the military spending proposals, but even he promised to enlarge the main instrument of a large American role, the armed forces.
Reagan was most clearly the advocate of a large role, relying heavily on military power. The party platform spoke of the “Soviet Union’s global ambitions” as the “premier challenge” facing the United States, called for “military superiority” through increased spending, a new class of bomber; new ships, planes, missiles, and air defense systems; and higher pay for the armed forces. It opposed arms control that fixed the United States “into a position of military inferiority” and accused the Democrats of weakening the nation.
Reagan, holding to the militant anti-Communism he had embraced in the late 1940s and had expressed in politics since the early 1960s, continued to see the Soviet Union as a real threat and the Cold War as a persistent reality. He expressed the World War II generation’s view of the dangers of military weakness and indecision, opposed SALT II, favored a large-scale military buildup, and criticized Carter for weakness and for permitting the United States to fall behind. The challenger also rejected the negative view of the shah of Iran, blaming his fall on Carter’s weaknesses rather than the shah’s own. Reagan also rejected the negative view of American involvement in Vietnam, a prop of the “little America” point of view, arguing that weak policies were responsible for America’s failure there. He also criticized Carter’s treatment of Israel and Taiwan.
Although portraying himself as much safer than Reagan, Carter did not advocate a small American role in the world. He represented Reagan as certain to produce a runaway arms race and likely to provoke a war because of his tendency to think of military solutions to crises. The Democratic platform included proposals for strengthening the armed forces through better pay for the military and improvements in the nuclear deterrent and called for resistance to aggression in the Persian Gulf and support for Israel as well as normalization of relations with China and ratification of SALT II. In response to criticism, Carter claimed that he had strengthened the United States and that it was “still the most powerful” nation in the world.
During the campaign, Carter gained ground rapidly. He did so chiefly because of Reagan’s ability to generate alarm and to blunder. Seeking to rally Democrats, Carter exploited the widespread doubts about, and fears of, the former movie actor and militant champion of a tougher foreign policy and made use of the advantages that control of the White House supplied, including its ability to distribute federal grants to places in which they could influence votes. Most Kennedy people rallied behind Carter; the economy even improved some. what and soon the gap separating him from Reagan in the polls became insignificant.
If Carter failed, Anderson seemed likely to be a contributing factor. His candidacy rested on the assumption that there was a widespread lack of confidence in both of the leading candidates. “People talk about a spoiler,” he remarked in defense of his role. “What’s to spoil?” Fearing that Anderson would take votes away from him and detract from his efforts to focus attention on Reagan, the president refused to join in a television debate that included Anderson.
By early October, it appeared that many people believed they had been given an unattractive set of alternatives. It seemed that only about 50 percent of the voters would go to the polls and the winner would obtain fewer than 50 percent of the total and triumph by only a narrow margin. The Republican party seemed likely to make gains, largely because of economic conditions, but it did not seem capable of becoming the nation’s majority party once again.
Late in the campaign, two factors gave Reagan a boost. One was a television debate a week before election day that was limited to the two major-party candidates. Reagan was especially effective in his closing statement in which he suggested that there were two basic questions: “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” “Is America as respected throughout the world?” His relaxed and friendly performance helped to dispel fears about him as a warmonger and doubts that he was smart enough for the presidency, while Carter failed to persuade the undecided that he recognized his mistakes, had learned from them, and would govern better in a second term. Another last-minute factor was the frustration of Carter’s efforts to obtain an agreement before election day for release of the hostages in Iran. For many people, that failure drove home the theme about Carter’s weaknesses. By election day, it competed effectively against his theme that Reagan threatened valuable domestic programs and peace.
Benefiting from a late surge among previously undecided voters and a low turnout among several Democratic groups, Reagan won by a surprisingly large margin, with a popular vote of 43.9 million to Carter’s 35.5 million and an electoral vote of 489 to 49. The voter turnout was unusually low, only 52 percent, a phenomenon that seriously damaged the president. Reagan had the support of more than 51 percent of those who voted to 41 percent for Carter and 7 percent for Anderson. The Democrats maintained control of the House of Representatives but by a narrower margin, and they lost control of the Senate, doing so for the first time since 1952.
After this great failure, Carter achieved three victories before leaving office. Congress accepted two of his proposals for action on the environment, and the United States and Iran agreed on a settlement of the hostage crisis. But they completed their work two days before he left office, and the hostages did not obtain their freedom until 20 January 1981, just as Carter was leaving office, and did not reach American soil until after Reagan had become president. During the presidential campaign, Republicans had feared that the administration would work out a deal just before election day, and later, a former member of the Carter administration, Gary Sick, charged that Republicans themselves worked out a deal to delay the release, a charge that remains unproved.
Although consoled somewhat by his perception of the great difficulties he had faced, Carter left office disappointed and unhappy, the first elected president since Herbert Hoover to fail in a bid for reelection. He recognized that he had not accomplished many of his goals. Above all, he knew he had not ended the leadership crisis.
The task that Carter faced had been enormous. To provide effective leadership in his time, a person needed a compelling vision and political skill of an unusually high order, including great talent in communication. He needed to communicate not only attractive goals but also a sense of realities and of what could be accomplished within them. Perhaps none of the available candidates could have supplied effective leadership in the Carter period.
Out of office and free of the political pressures that had limited his accomplishments as president, Carter became an unusually active and widely admired former president. He found new ways of expressing his humanitarianism: monitoring elections in other countries, mediating international disputes, bringing experts together to develop solutions to pressing problems, and building low-priced housing with the Habitat for Humanity organization.