Carter failed to solve the ailing economy or confront a growing crisis in the Middle East during his one-term presidency.

Overview

  • Democrat Jimmy Carter served as president of the United States from 1977 to 1981.
  • Carter was unable to solve most of the problems plaguing the country during his administration, including an ailing economy and a continuing energy crisis.
  • Although Carter brokered the historic Camp David Accords between Israel and Egypt, relations with the Middle East broke down after the Iranian Revolution in 1979. Iranian extremists seized the American embassy in Tehran and held 52 American hostages captive there for over a year.

The election of Jimmy Carter

The election of 1976 fell on the bicentennial of the United States, but few people felt much like celebrating. The economy was in bad shape, and the Watergate scandal had eroded Americans' trust in their elected officials. Incumbent president Gerald Ford, who had ascended to the highest office in the land after Nixon's resignation, had little chance of retaining his position given his association with the disgraced ex-president.1^1
Into this bleak political landscape stepped James Earl "Jimmy" Carter Jr., former peanut farmer and governor of Georgia. Carter was such a long shot at the start of the race that when he told his mother he planned to run for president, she asked, "President of what?" But strategic victories in early primaries led Carter to win the 1976 Democratic nomination, along with running mate Walter Mondale.2^2
Photograph of President Jimmy Carter.
Official White House portrait of Jimmy Carter. Image courtesy National Archives.
Carter campaigned as a Washington outsider, a pious and forthright man who promised voters that he would never lie to them. His message resonated just enough to put him in office by a narrow margin, 50.1% of the popular vote to Ford's 48%.3^3

The Carter years (1977-1981)

Carter, as a breath of fresh air after the Nixon and Ford years, enjoyed an initial burst of popularity in 1977, but his ratings slipped as it became increasingly clear that Carter was unwilling to work with Washington to achieve results. He surrounded himself with advisers from his native Georgia and refused to delegate any authority whatsoever: in the first six months of his presidency Carter even personally reviewed requests for use of the White House tennis court.3^3
Carter crafted legislation packages concerning crucial fixes to the energy crisis and the economy in secret, and then rained them down upon an increasingly hostile Congress. As a fiscal conservative, he alienated the liberal wing of the Democratic party by refusing to spend much money to invigorate the economy or to fund social programs. He alienated conservatives by pardoning some 10,000 Vietnam War draft evaders, negotiating the return of control of the Panama Canal to Panama, resuming diplomatic relations with the People's Republic of China, and halting the construction of new nuclear weapons.4^4
The economy continued to slump in the late 1970s. Inflation soared to a staggering 13% and gas shortages once again plagued the country after violence erupted in the Middle East. After cloistering himself with advisers for days in summer 1979 in order to determine a solution to these woes, Carter emerged offering nothing more than a highly-critical speech that blamed Americans for causing the present 'malaise' through a loss of moral virtue.5^5
Speech delivered by Jimmy Carter, July 15, 1979
" . . . I want to speak to you first tonight about a subject even more serious than energy or inflation. I want to talk to you right now about a fundamental threat to American democracy.
I do not mean our political and civil liberties. They will endure. And I do not refer to the outward strength of America, a nation that is at peace tonight everywhere in the world, with unmatched economic power and military might.
The threat is nearly invisible in ordinary ways. It is a crisis of confidence. It is a crisis that strikes at the very heart and soul and spirit of our national will. We can see this crisis in the growing doubt about the meaning of our own lives and in the loss of a unity of purpose for our nation. . . .
In a nation that was proud of hard work, strong families, close-knit communities, and our faith in God, too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption. Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns. But we've discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning. We've learned that piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose.
The symptoms of this crisis of the American spirit are all around us. For the first time in the history of our country a majority of our people believe that the next five years will be worse than the past five years. Two-thirds of our people do not even vote. The productivity of American workers is actually dropping, and the willingness of Americans to save for the future has fallen below that of all other people in the Western world.
As you know, there is a growing disrespect for government and for churches and for schools, the news media, and other institutions. This is not a message of happiness or reassurance, but it is the truth and it is a warning. . . ."

Foreign policy and the Iran Hostage Crisis

As a president deeply committed to human rights around the world, Carter achieved some victories in international relations. Significantly, Carter brought Israel's Menachem Begin and Egypt's Anwar Sadat together at the presidential retreat in Maryland to negotiate the Camp David Accords, which stipulated that Egypt would recognize the state of Israel in return for regaining control of the Sinai peninsula.6^6
But elsewhere, things took a turn for the worse. US-Soviet relations, which seemed on the verge of a breakthrough when Carter and Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev announced their agreement to a second Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT II), broke down yet again when the USSR invaded Afghanistan in 1979. Consequently, the US Senate never ratified SALT II, and the United States even boycotted the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow.7^7
Meanwhile, the situation in the Middle East rapidly destabilized in January 1979 when followers of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini overthrew Mohammed Reza Pahlevi, the shah of Iran. The shah had been installed as dictator with the help of the CIA in 1953, and Khomeini's Muslim fundamentalist followers sought to purge Iran of secular, Western influences.8^8
In November 1979, Iranian militants seized the US Embassy in Tehran, taking 66 Americans hostage. They demanded that the United States return the shah (who had fled to New York for medical treatment) and his assets to Iran and issue an apology. Though 14 hostages were released within a few months of the siege, negotiations to free the 52 others dragged on for over a year. A complex rescue attempt failed, killing eight American soldiers in a helicopter crash. Finally, the United States agreed to pay the captors nearly $8 billion to end the hostage crisis. To add insult to injury, Ayatollah Khomeini did not release the hostages until January 20, 1981: Ronald Reagan's inauguration day.9^9
Republican challenger Ronald Reagan defeated Carter in the presidential election of 1980, making him the first elected president to be unseated by the American people since Herbert Hoover in 1932.
Although Carter's years in office were rocky, his post-presidential career as a diplomat and human-rights advocate earned him the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002.10^{10}

What do you think?

What do you think Carter hoped to achieve with his "Crisis of Confidence" speech? Why do you think it was so poorly received by the American public?
Carter has been compared to Herbert Hoover, another president who failed to solve an economic crisis. Do you think that's a fair comparison? Why or why not?
How would you characterize the Carter administration’s foreign policy? Was it effective?
How did the Cold War contribute to later tensions in the Middle East?
Article written by Dr. Kimberly Kutz Elliott. This article is licensed under a CC-BY-NC-SA 4.0 license.
Notes
  1. See David Kennedy and Lizabeth Cohen, The American Pageant: A History of the American People, 15th (AP) edition (Stamford, CT: Cengage Learning, 2013), 933.
  2. James T. Patterson, Restless Giant: The United States from Watergate to Bush v. Gore (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), 105-106.
  3. Patterson, Restless Giant, 109-111.
  4. Kennedy and Cohen, The American Pageant, 944-935.
  5. Patterson, Restless Giant, 127.
  6. See "Foreign Policy Triumphs," Digital History, 2016.
  7. Patterson, Restless Giant, 122-123.
  8. Bureau of International Information Programs, Outline of US History , (US Department of State, 2011) 292.
  9. See "No Islands of Stability," Digital History, 2016.
  10. For more on Carter's life and career, see Randall Balmer, Redeemer: The Life of Jimmy Carter, (New York: Basic Books, 2014).
Attributions
Full text of Carter's "Crisis of Confidence" speech courtesy The American Experience, PBS.
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