Presidency of Jimmy Carter

Presidency of Jimmy Carter
January 20, 1977 – January 20, 1981
PresidentJimmy Carter
CabinetSee list
SeatWhite House
Seal of the President of the United States.svg
Seal of the President

The presidency of Jimmy Carter began at noon EST on January 20, 1977, when Jimmy Carter was inaugurated as the 39th President of the United States, and ended on January 20, 1981. Carter, a Democrat, took office after defeating incumbent Republican President Gerald Ford in the 1976 presidential election. His presidency ended with his defeat in the 1980 presidential election by Republican nominee Ronald Reagan.

Carter took office during a period of "stagflation", as the economy experienced a combination of high inflation and slow economic growth. His budgetary policies centered on taming inflation by reducing deficits and government spending. Responding to energy concerns that had persisted through much of the 1970s, his administration enacted a national energy policy designed to promote energy conservation and the development of alternative resources. Despite Carter's policies, the country was beset by an energy crisis in 1979, which was followed by a recession in 1980. Carter sought reforms to the country's welfare, health care, and tax systems, but was largely unsuccessful, partly due to poor relations with Congress. He presided over the establishment of the Department of Energy and the Department of Education.

Taking office in the midst of the Cold War, Carter reoriented U.S. foreign policy towards an emphasis on human rights. Taking office during a period of relatively warm relations with both China and the Soviet Union, Carter continued the conciliatory policies of his predecessors. He normalized relations with China and continued the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks with the Soviet Union. In an effort to end the Arab–Israeli conflict, he helped arrange the Camp David Accords between Israel and Egypt. Through the Torrijos–Carter Treaties, Carter guaranteed the transfer of the Panama Canal to Panama in 1999. After the start of the Soviet–Afghan War, he discarded his conciliatory policies towards the Soviet Union and began a period of military build-up.

The final fifteen months of Carter's presidential tenure were marked by several major crises, including the Iran hostage crisis, serious fuel shortages, and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. His low approval ratings drew a challenge from Ted Kennedy, a prominent liberal Democrat who protested Carter's opposition to a national health insurance system. Boosted by public support for his policies in late 1979 and early 1980, Carter rallied to defeat Kennedy in the 1980 Democratic primaries. In the general election, Carter faced Reagan, a conservative former governor of California. Though polls taken on the eve of the election showed a close race, Reagan won a decisive victory. In polls of historians and political scientists, Carter is usually ranked as a below-average president.

Presidential election of 1976

Carter and President Gerald Ford debating at the Walnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia

Carter was elected as the Governor of Georgia in 1970, and during his four years in office he earned a reputation as a progressive, racially moderate Southern governor. Observing George McGovern's success in the 1972 Democratic primaries, Carter came to believe that he could win the 1976 Democratic presidential nomination by running as an outsider unconnected to establishment politicians in Washington, D.C.[1] Despite scant backing from party leaders, McGovern had won the 1972 Democratic nomination by winning delegates in primary elections, and Carter's campaign would follow a similar course.[2] Carter declared his candidacy for the 1976 Democratic presidential nomination in December 1974.[3] As Democratic leaders such as 1968 nominee Hubert Humphrey, Senator Walter Mondale of Minnesota, and Senator Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts declined to enter the race, there was no clear favorite in the Democratic primaries. Mo Udall, Sargent Shriver, Birch Bayh, Fred R. Harris, Terry Sanford, Henry M. Jackson, Lloyd Bentsen, and George Wallace all sought the nomination, and many of these candidates were better known than Carter.[4]

Carter sought to appeal to various groups in the party; his advocacy for cutting defense spending and reining in the CIA appealed to liberals, while his emphasis on eliminating government waste appealed to conservatives.[5] Iowa held the first contest of the primary season, and Carter campaigned heavily in the state, hoping that a victory would show that he had serious chance of winning the nomination. Carter won the most votes of any candidate in the Iowa caucus, and he dominated media coverage in advance of the New Hampshire primary, which he also won.[6] Carter's subsequent defeat of Wallace in the Florida and North Carolina primaries eliminated Carter's main rival in the South.[7] The support of black voters was a key factor in Carter's success, especially in the Southern primaries. With a victory over Jackson in the Pennsylvania primary, Carter established himself as the clear front-runner.[8] Despite the late entrance of Senator Frank Church and Governor Jerry Brown into the race, Carter clinched the nomination on the final day of the primaries.[9] The 1976 Democratic National Convention proceeded harmoniously and, after interviewing several candidates, Carter chose Mondale as his running mate. The selection of Mondale was well received by many liberal Democrats, who had been skeptical of Carter.[10]

The electoral map of the 1976 election

The Republicans experienced a contested convention that ultimately nominated incumbent President Gerald Ford, who had succeeded to the presidency in 1974 after the resignation of Richard Nixon due to the latter's involvement in the Watergate scandal.[10] With the Republicans badly divided, and with Ford facing questions over his competence as president, polls taken in August 1976 showed Carter with a 15-point lead.[11] In the general election campaign, Carter continued to promote a centrist agenda, seeking to define new Democratic positions in the aftermath of the tumultuous 1960s. Above all, Carter attacked the political system, defining himself as an "outsider" who would reform Washington in the post-Watergate era.[12] In response, Ford attacked Carter's supposed "fuzziness", arguing that Carter had taken vague stances on major issues.[11] Carter and President Ford faced off in three televised debates during the 1976 election,[13] the first such debates since 1960.[13] Ford was generally viewed as the winner of the first debate, but he made a major gaffe in the second debate when he stated there was "no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe."[a] The gaffe put an end to Ford's late momentum, and Carter helped his own campaign with a strong performance in the third debate. Polls taken just before election day showed a very close race.[14]

Carter won the election with 50.1% of the popular vote and 297 electoral votes, while Ford won 48% of the popular vote and 240 electoral votes. The 1976 presidential election represents the lone Democratic presidential election victory between the elections of 1964 and 1992. Carter fared particularly well in the Northeast and the South, while Ford swept the West and won much of the Midwest. In the concurrent congressional elections, Democrats increased their majorities in both the House and Senate.[15]