Liveblogging the Presidents: Jimmy Carter

By Bob Bruner-


“[Rosalynn] did not seem very surprised.  In spite of the bad news, we were remarkably at ease.  We talked about how my necessarily more conservative economic policies had created a still unhealed breach in the Democratic party, and how ironic it was that the issues on which we had expended the most effort were the very ones that had lost us so much political support.  We enumerated some of the times when she had urged me to avoid an issue or postpone an act or statement that might be politically costly.  Unlike some of the previous discussions, this was not an argument between us, but a mutual analysis.  Even as we faced defeat, I was still convinced that my decisions were justified.  Most things we did that were difficult and controversial, cost us votes in the long run.  Camp David accords, opening up Africa, dealing with the Cuban refugees, Panama Canal treaties, the normalization with China, energy legislation, plus the hostages and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan—particularly the hostages.  Also, the Kennedy attacks for eight months hurt a lot.  I spent a major portion of my time trying to recruit back the Democratic constituency that should have been naturally supportive—Jews, Hispanics, blacks, the poor, labor, and so forth.”

— Jimmy Carter, Keeping Faith, pages 577-578.


There you have it: election day, November 4, 1980, and Jimmy Carter confronts the fact of his defeat for a second term as President.  In the whole 633-page volume, the one sentence stands out as an epitaph for Carter’s presidency: “Most things we did that were difficult and controversial, cost us votes in the long run.”  He reiterated that “the issues on which we had expended the most effort were the very ones that had lost us so much political support.”  By recounting the difficulty, controversy, and great effort, he seems to appeal for the reader’s empathy: no good deed goes unpunished.  Carter’s memoir has the makings of a Shakespearian tragedy.  What can this memoir tell us about leadership?


This post continues my commentary on the seminar I’m leading for Darden and the Miller Center for Public Policy on the leadership lessons of the post-Watergate U.S. Presidents.  Students and I are devoting the year to studying the memoirs, biographies, and principal speeches of each President in succession.  Though universities teach leadership from many different perspectives, deriving leadership lessons from the Presidents is a neglected opportunity.  This course aims to fill that gap.


Carter is a case study well worth our attention because of his uniqueness and contradictions.  He campaigned for office as a populist and ran afoul of entrenched powers and of challengers (Kennedy and Reagan) who had a strong populist appeal.  Deeply religious, he presided at a time of an unmistakable trend toward unbelief.  He sought to restore faith and trust in government only to be displaced by a successor who argued that “government is the problem.”  A former peanut farmer, he imposed a grain embargo on the Soviet Union that brought hardship to American farmers.  He sought to balance the federal budget in the face of Great Society spending habits.  He faced challenging relations with Congress, but delivered a productive record.  “Mediocre,” “sanctimonious,” “stubborn,” “cautious,” “feeble,” and “cold” are some of the adjectives used to describe Carter.  Surveys of historians rank Carter at #27 (out of 44) just behind Gerald Ford and ahead of Chester A. Arthur and Benjamin Harrison—over the years, his position in the ranking has fallen as low as #34 and risen as high as #18.  It seems that with the passage of time, history may be dealing more gently with him.    


An Overview

In my discussion of the presidency of Gerald Ford, I observed that our reflections seem to gather around five “buckets”: circumstances, outcomes, character, execution, and choices.  Each of these buckets interacts with the others.  And the buckets aren’t static: each will change over time, which means that we must judge a presidency in its totality, rather than by just one bucket or at just one moment in time.  In short, the business of drawing leadership lessons suggests that the really simple assessments of a presidency are incomplete, incoherent, and/or wrong.  We must embrace complexity.  So, how does one size up President Carter?


Circumstances. As the saying goes, “you must play the hand you’re dealt.”  Carter was dealt a very challenging hand.  He entered office following the miasma of Watergate, the retreat from Vietnam, and the difficult presidency of Gerald Ford.  Carter promised to clean up the mess in Washington.  During his term, Congress began to fracture into caucuses (e.g., based on regions, minorities, women) that made it more difficult to move an agenda.  A staff memo noted that “85% of the criticism of you during 1977 came from other Democrats.” [1]


Diplomacy was growing more challenging, shifting from a bi-polar world (Moscow vs. Washington) to a multi-polar world (with growing power and demands from Third World countries, China, and an increasingly integrated Europe.)  The Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, which prompted Carter to cancel wheat exports to the USSR.  The Iranian Revolution broke out and culminated in taking 52 American hostages from the U.S. Embassy.   The hostage crisis lasted 444 days and ended just after Carter left office.  The Iranian Revolution triggered a decline in oil production that caused a sudden rise in the price of gasoline and shortages in many U.S. cities.  At large, the economy experienced “stagflation,” a nagging wave of high inflation, high unemployment, and low GDP growth.  Consumer misery and voter discontent skyrocketed. 


Character.  Several of Carter’s attributes stand out, among the many by which one could describe a President.   Carter was very determined, and also rather inflexible, which in the pragmatic give-and-take of Washington would prove to be a defect.  He believed that the rational benefits of his program spoke for themselves and that therefore potential allies should follow his lead.  His memoir paints the profile of a perfectionist, a micro-manager who wanted to place a personal stamp on all business flowing through the White House, a budget hawk who hated waste in government spending.  Carter was ambitious and impatient.  In contrast to some leaders who might focus on three or four main objectives to achieve during a term in office, Carter arrived at the White House in 1976 with a long list of campaign promises that he felt obliged to fulfill.  He chose to try to do it all.


Carter’s memoir portrays deep humility.  He walked to his inauguration.  He actively sought criticism and in his famous “crisis of confidence” speech, went public with what he heard.  He was an awkward public speaker.  His was not the kind of outsized ego whose radiance would fill a room.  He ordered the Marine Band to stop the practice of playing “Hail to the Chief” at his appearances.  Perhaps his humility stemmed from his strong religious faith.  He was the most openly devout President in U.S. history.  Carter wrote,

“Although I was surrounded by people eager to help me, my most vivid impression of the Presidency remains the loneliness in which the most difficult decisions had to be made…I prayed a lot—more than ever before in my life—asking God to give me a clear mind, sound judgment, and wisdom in dealing with affairs that could affect the lives of so many people in our own country and around the world.  Although I cannot claim that my decisions were always the best ones, prayer was a great help to me.”  ((Pages 64-65.))

His faith suggests the moral impetus that he brought to his choices and methods of execution.  He came to the White House with a high ethic of reform of the federal government, and even a “savior complex” as some alleged.  


Choices.  Perhaps the most important decision a President faces is the setting of priorities.  A candidate for the White House may promise voters many things, in an effort to test the electorate to see which policies resonate most strongly.  What is remarkable about Carter’s new administration was that he seemed to make a priority of everything.  He wrote,

“I took seriously the commitments I had made as a candidate.  Peace, human rights, nuclear arms control, and the Middle East had been my major foreign policy concerns.  I had also spoken out on issues closer to home: achieving maximum bureaucratic efficiency, reorganizing the government, creating jobs, deregulating major industries, addressing the energy problem, canceling wasteful water projects, welfare and tax reform, environmental quality, restoring the moral fiber of the government, and openness and honestly in dealing with the press and public.”   ((Page 70.))

Then, Carter went on to highlight some really high priority goals, including “my promise to work well with Congress,” improved public works, improved education, balancing the budget, and reducing defense spending.


Carter rejected the policy of Nixon and Ford, of conducting U.S. diplomacy according to rational self-interest (“realpolitik”) and instead preferred a more principled approach consistent with the ideals of American democracy.  Thus, he made human rights a priority, which strained relations with adversaries such as the Soviet Union and with authoritarian allies of the U.S.  Carter’s decision to admit the deposed Shah of Iran to enter the U.S. for cancer treatment enraged the Iranian revolutionaries, who used the admission of the Shah as a pretext to storm the Embassy in Tehran.  In response to the USSR’s invasion of Afghanistan, Carter suspended détente and enforced a boycott of the U.S. in the Moscow Olympic Games of 1980. 


Execution.  This dimension addresses the style, processes, practices, and procedures by which a President tries to achieve policy goals. Carter wanted to know what was going on, to be at the center of the flow of information and proposals; for a time, he served as his own chief of staff.  He insisted on personally overseeing the sign-up list for the White House tennis court.  His leadership of the Arab-Israeli peace talks at Camp David is a remarkable instance where his micromanagement paid off: by dropping all other matters for 13 days to mediate the negotiations, he lent incredible prestige and momentum to the talks.  Carter literally owned the mediation process by controlling the development of the treaty document.  An assessment by Stephen Hess in 1978 concluded that,

“The root of the problem is that Jimmy Carter is the first Process President in American history.  “Process President”—using a definition by Aaron Wildavsky and Jack Knott–means that Carter places “greater emphasis on methods, procedures and instruments for making policy than on the content of policy itself.”  Carter is an activist.  He wants to do things.  Yet his campaign statements should have warned us that save for the human rights thrust in foreign policy, his passion in government is for how things are done, rather than what should be done….But process is only a tool for getting from here to there—it is not a substitute for substance.  When a president lacks an overriding design for what he wants government to do, his department chiefs are forced to prepare presidential options in a vacuum.  Usually this is done by BOGSAT—the acronym for “bunch of guys sitting around a table.”  In other cases, where political executives have not been given some framework in which to function, they will try to impose their own hidden agendas on the president.”

BOGSAT describes many of Carter’s appointments to his White House staff.  Carter’s staff drew significantly on a circle of aides who had served him while Governor of Georgia—some were wise and capable; the naivety of others complicated Carters relations with Washington. 


In our study of the presidents, communication is an important element of the execution of policies.  Carter was a somewhat wooden public speaker, who was more comfortable reading his prepared speeches than connecting with his audiences on a personal level.  But even this style was overshadowed by the tone and vision of his speeches: we must economize; we cannot do it all; everyone must make sacrifices.  While the reality of this may have been indisputable, Carter offered no uplifting vision that would persuade the nation that sacrifices were worthwhile.  In speeches supporting his energy legislation, Carter wore a cardigan sweater and urged people to turn down their thermostats and generally consume less.  On July 15, 1979, Carter addressed the nation in his famous “crisis of confidence” speech that asserted a “malaise” gripped the country and that “We’ve got to stop crying and start sweating, stop talking and start walking, stop cursing and start praying.  The strength we need will not come from the White House, but from every house in America.”  ((Page 126.))  The speech garnered empathy and a modest improvement in Carter’s approval rating.  But the downbeat tone—rather than the substance—of these speeches remains a pillar of Carter’s legacy.   


The opening quotation of this post hints at another distinctive element of Carter’s style of execution: argument and “mutual analysis” with his wife, Rosalynn.  Up to then, no First Lady—with the possible exception of Abigail Adams and Eleanor Roosevelt—had served as a serious policy advocate or adviser to the President.  In Keeping Faith, Carter called his wife, “business and political partner…[one who] had been as familiar with domestic and foreign issues as anyone around me, and had assumed the same basic responsibilities as I had.  She had helped plan strategy…Around the White House supper table and in other family councils…were my strongest supporters, but also my most severe critics…Rosalynn had strong opinions of her own and never gave up on one of her ideas as long as there was any hope of its being accepted.”  ((Pages 33-36.))


Outcomes.  In his biography of Jimmy Carter, Julian Zelizer wrote that Carter’s “time in the White House remains a symbol of failed leadership…Carter is consistently remembered as a president who failed to articulate a compelling political vision and who was unable to hold his party together…[an] implosion.”  ((Page 147.))  Though Carter entered with a 66% approval rating in polls, it dropped to 34% by the time he left office.  He fulfilled his campaign promises only partially.  His legacy was tarnished by the episodes of “stagflation,” the oil shock, and his “malaise” speech; by the disastrous attempt to rescue the Embassy hostages in Iran; by ethics investigations of administration officials and family members; by the reinstatement of mandatory draft registration; and by arming Indonesia in its repressive occupation of East Timor.  He lost in a landslide to Ronald Reagan in 1980, and thereby was denied a second term. 


But Carter started no wars, which he claimed was one of his proudest achievements.  He negotiated the SALT II reductions in nuclear weapons, the handover of the Panama Canal, and the Camp David peace accord that ended hostilities between Israel and Egypt.  And he removed nuclear weapons from South Korea.  He appointed Paul Volker, a monetary “hawk,” to be Chairman of the Federal Reserve, whose leadership figured importantly in quelling inflation.  He launched a major deregulation wave: oil, beer, trucking, railroads, and most importantly, airlines (since then, per-mile ticket prices have fallen by about half).  And he signed reforms of government surveillance.  Carter’s memoir recounts that in his legislative program with Congress, he won “three out of four roll call votes on issues on which I had taken a clear position.”  ((Page 93.))  As the following graph shows, Carter’s legislative record ranks third behind Kennedy and Johnson among all Presidents since 1953. 



Source: www.brookings.edu/vitalstats  Updated April 18, 2014.


Since departing from the White House, Carter has led a post-presidency that is almost without equal among the Presidents.  His peace keeping and humanitarian work earned him the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002.  He has continued to speak out on matters of public policy, even criticizing his successors in the White House.  A poll in 2009 reported that his public approval rating had recovered to 64%. 


Points for reflection

Our seminar discussion raised a host of valuable points, aided by a visit from Steven Hochman, Assistant to President Carter and Director of Research at The Carter Center.  Consider these four:


1.      Who are you?  The identity of a leader does a great deal to frame the leader’s agenda and chances for success.  Carter openly defined himself as: Southerner, peanut farmer, Christian, populist, economic conservative, and social liberal—in the context of Washington in the mid-1970s, this was in improbable stew, perhaps best defined as “outsider.”  Would you rather be an insider or an outsider?  The outsider benefits from rejecting the reputation and mistakes of the incumbents.  But framing one’s identity as an outsider or entrant will limit one’s effectiveness with insiders or incumbents whom you seek to influence.  Carter’s political identity was as a populist who would “clean up the mess in Washington.”  But insiders and incumbents have a way of circling up around the entrant the way antibodies attack a virus.  Carter entered the White House with a very ambitious agenda that would require great cooperation from allies and adversaries.  But his inflexibility and resistance to the way Washington works damaged the cohesion of his party.  Business Schools don’t spend much time training students how to enter well into a new professional setting.  Chapter 4 in Carter’s memoir, titled, “My One-Week Honeymoon with Congress,” is a cautionary tale.

2.      How important is managing well versus mobilizing?  Consider the possibility tht each depends on the other.  Julian Zelizer wrote,

“Through most of his presidency, Carter was unable to nurture strong relations with congressional Democrats or core Democratic constituencies, as too often he was unwilling to engage in the kind of deal making and compromises that were expected from the White House.  Nor did he demonstrate a good feel for what steps were necessary to create programs that had strong political support. The very qualities that allowed him to campaign successfully as an antiestablishment politician, when translated into governance, made it difficult to build a durable political coalition to which he could turn in the crisis years in 1979 and 1980.  His embrace of the complexity of policy allowed him to think beyond traditional political orthodoxies, but it also prevented him from conveying the kind of compelling ideological vision that voters sought in difficult times.  In essence, Carter’s interest lay in the challenges of presidential leadership rather than the challenges of being a party leader.  He was willing to use his political position to push the nation through difficult choices, but he was less interested or successful in taking the steps that were needed to leave his party more united and in a stronger political position by the 1980 election.”  ((Pages 149-150.))

3.      Management of multiparty negotiations: the importance of craft, social intelligence, and sheer will.   About a quarter of Carter’s memoir is devoted to the very detailed history of the Arab-Israeli peace negotiation between Begin and Sadat at Camp David over 13 days in 1979.  These pages are an invaluable illustration of many of the lessons that business schools teach about bargaining and negotiating.  Perhaps the most important of these lessons is that in any two-party negotiation, there are actually three negotiations ongoing: one between the two parties, and two more within each of the parties.  Carter artfully mediated all three simultaneously.  Carter’s achievement of this treaty (and of the decades of peace between these countries) is a dramatic testament to the power of diplomatic skill.

4.      Defining “success.”  Virtually all of the Presidents challenge our notion of success in a national leader.  One can turn to objective metrics, such as terms in office, treaties, election votes, legislative output, and polling numbers.  But the ability to frame and communicate an inspiring vision for the nation probably dominates the indicators of presidential success. 

5.      The calculus of power.   Carter’s words that “Most things we did that were difficult and controversial cost us votes in the long run.”  This implies a tradeoff: stubborn adherence to a principled position is costly, in terms of support and risk of defeat.  Settling for half a loaf and living to fight another day might be rational if you are confident of success in the long run and if the discount rate on future returns is sufficiently low.




Carter, Jimmy, (1995) Keeping Faith, Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press.


Zelizer, Julian E., (2010), Jimmy Carter, New York: Times Books.


Carter is perhaps the most prolific autobiographer of all the Presidents.  I recommend, but did not assign for the course, two books that preceded Keeping Faith and that help to reveal Carter’s background and character:

·        Carter, Jimmy, (1975) Why Not the Best? Nashville: Broadman Press.  This is Carter’s “campaign biography” written in advance of his campaign for the presidency.  Unlike many campaign biographies, Carter wrote this himself.

·        Carter, Jimmy, (1992) Turning Point: A Candidate, A State, and A Nation Come of Age, New York: Times Books.  This book describes Carter’s entry into politics.  As a peanut farmer in Plains, Georgia, he denied the racism and neglect of the impoverished prevalent in the region and sought to change state policies.  In his first campaign for office he confronted voting fraud by a political machine—and won.  The book reads like a thriller, and in the final chapters is difficult to put down.  I think that the story told here helps to illuminate Carter’s persona as an outsider and populist.  And it explains his activism on behalf of election integrity in his post-presidential career.  Highly recommended.



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