Presidential Campaign and the Carter Presidency
Presidential Campaign: When Jimmy Carter ran for the presidency in 1974 he was so little known that most political pundits greeted his candidacy with the question “Jimmy who?” His 1976 presidential campaign was based on renewing the nation’s spirit and reforming its government following the national divisions of the post-Watergate, post-Vietnam era. In that campaign, he promised to strive for “a government as good as its people,” an administration that would not be “business as usual” or “go along to get along.”
The Carter Presidency: President Carter’s successes in office included the Israel-Egypt peace treaty, the Panama Canal treaties, establishing full diplomatic relations with China, and a strong advocacy of human rights — making it a continuing principle of American foreign policy. He also greatly increased the number of women and minorities in federal jobs and judgeships and won passage of the Alaska Lands Conservation Act, the largest conservation action ever. And, as the first president from the Deep South since the Civil War, he helped to heal the wounds of racial discrimination and division.
A number of other battles and accomplishments have taken on added significance as history has underscored their importance: his campaign for a national energy policy; a politically costly but ultimately successful attack on inflation, which had escalated dramatically due to the oil shock of 1979-80; a vigorous campaign against nuclear proliferation; health insurance for children and families; a major focus on education including the creation of the Department of Education and dramatically increased funding for early childhood education as well as college tuition assistance.
Human Rights: In his January 1981 farewell message to the nation, President Carter said: “Our American values are not luxuries, but necessities — not the salt in our bread but the bread itself. Our common vision of a free and just society is our greatest source of cohesion at home and strength abroad, greater even than the bounty of our material blessings.”
As president, his espousal of human rights had been criticized by much of the foreign policy establishment as being naïve and counter productive. But, it had two major long-term impacts. In Latin America, the change in the 1980’s from military dictatorships to democracies, which still holds today, arose from the firm stand President Carter took against dictatorships from Argentina to Chile. In the Soviet Union, his support for the dissident movement in that country, from Anatoly (Natan) Scharansky to Andrei Sakharov, and for the Solidarity Movement in Poland, was an essential element in the unraveling of Communism in the years to come.
Middle East Peace Process: Perhaps the greatest accomplishment of the Carter presidency was the accord between Israel and Egypt, reached in 1978 at Camp David. President Carter’s intensive personal involvement in the negotiations, followed by an unprecedented round of presidential shuttle diplomacy in the Middle East, produced a treaty of peace between Israel and its most powerful Arab neighbor that has continued to be honored by both countries, and a framework for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian issues that has remained unfulfilled since he left office.
Six months after the Camp David negotiations, President Carter took an equally risky trip to the Middle East to conclude the agreements. Both sides had begun to offer differing interpretations of key provisions of the original accord, which was in serious danger of unraveling. In both instances, his staff recommended against such a high level of personal involvement, but he again risked his reputation for the cause of peace in the region and succeeded.
He was the first president to state unambiguously that the Palestinian people must have a “homeland” if there was to be a peace treaty that would ensure Israel’s security, a statement that provoked fierce criticism at the time. It foreshadowed other statements and actions in the decades that followed designed to move the process toward peace forward by pushing participants to deal with the facts.
Panama Canal Treaties: The Panama Canal treaties were passed over strong opposition from many conservatives, but with the courageous support of then-Senate Minority Leader Howard Baker, R-Tennessee, former President Ford, Sen. Barry Goldwater, a number of other Republican senators, and some of the most conservative Southern Democrats. In a highly personal campaign addressed to both the American people and the Congress, he changed overwhelming opposition to the treaties into positive approval. The treaties were not only critical in preserving a peaceful relationship with Panama and assuring that the Canal would remain free from terrorist incidents, but also added immeasurably to U.S. prestige throughout Latin America.
Defense and the Cold War: President Carter encountered opposition from the left in his own party as he obtained the first real increase in defense spending since the Vietnam War He increased funding for stealth technology, cruise missiles, and special operations capabilities — decisions that history has clearly validated. He managed to obtain agreement from our NATO allies to an annual 3 percent real increase in defense spending. His introduction of theater nuclear weapons to Europe sent a strong message to the Soviet Union at a time when it was deploying new (SS-20) missiles aimed at Europe. His determined response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan — economic sanctions, including a politically explosive embargo on grain sales; boycott of the Moscow Olympics; and the arming of the Afghan resistance; eventually helped lead the way to a powerful resistance with broad international support and eventual Soviet withdrawal.
While instinctively opposed to the unnecessary use of military force, the strong defense policies of his administration helped set the stage for the end of the cold war. Robert M. Gates, CIA Director under President George H. W. Bush and Secretary of Defense under both President George W. Bush and President Obama, wrote in his 1996 book, “From the Shadows: The Ultimate Insider’s Story of Five Presidents and How They Won the Cold War”: “I believe historians and political observers alike have failed to appreciate the importance of Jimmy Carter’s contributions to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. He was the first president during the Cold War to challenge publicly and consistently, the legitimacy of Soviet rule at home. Carter’s human rights policy. . .by the testimony of countless Soviet and East European dissidents and future democratic leaders challenged the moral authority of the Soviet government and gave American sanction and support to those resisting that government.”
SALT and Arms Reductions: Many critics who assailed the Panama Canal treaties also attacked President Carter’s aggressive proposal for “deep cuts” in U.S. and Soviet nuclear arsenals and the strategic arms limitation agreement he negotiated with the Soviet Union in 1979 Although the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan made ratification of the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT) politically impossible, both sides continued to honor provisions throughout the Cold War; and his “deep cut” proposals became the basis for arms control agreements under both Presidents Reagan and George H. W. Bush.
Relations with China: President Jimmy Carter established full diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China, reversing an era of estrangement between the United States and China that began after communist takeover of the mainland in 1949. U.S. Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford initiated dialogue with China, but agreeing to full diplomatic relations was a major step. Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping came to the United States in January 1979 to formalize an agreement, and Deng and Carter remained lifelong friends. The commitment to diplomacy on both sides led to new good will, increased trade, and other vital connections between the nations.
Energy Policy: President Carter’s relationship with the Congress was frequently rocky, due to his disinclination to defer controversial issues. Nonetheless, his legislative record of success was 76.4 percent, placing him third highest among post WWII presidents (Johnson 84.4; Kennedy 83.0).
A notable example of tackling tough issues despite the political consequences was his four-year struggle to give America a national energy policy that would reverse growing dependence on imported petroleum and move the country toward alternative sources of energy. Despite controversy and resistance, he gained enactment of 60 percent of his energy proposals. In an April 18, 1977, address to the nation prior to introducing legislation, he said: “Our decision about energy will test the character of the American people and the ability of the President and the Congress to govern this nation. This difficult effort will be the ‘moral equivalent of war,’ except that we will be uniting our efforts to build and not to destroy.”
During his term, he created a Department of Energy and deregulated both oil and natural gas prices, allowing market forces to work and create incentives for traditional production. At the same time he emphasized the importance of encouraging alternative sources such as solar, geothermal and wind.
Some of his more significant accomplishments were later reversed by his successors. He took on the automobile industry and promulgated new fuel efficiency standards, raising standards from 17 miles per gallon to 27.5 miles per gallon over five years. Those standards were rolled back in subsequent years, and despite America’s growing dependence on imported oil from an increasingly unstable region, today’s averages are actually less than the 27.5 mile per gallon standard President Carter set in 1980. Not until 2009 were the roll backs reversed, when President Barack Obama announced higher mileage and emission standards to take effect in 2012 and be achieved by 2016 — with passenger cars required to get 39 miles per gallon and light trucks 30 miles per gallon.
President Carter proposed and gained Congressional approval for a Synthetic Fuels Corporation, which, had it been continued would have conducted research in and experimented with alternative energy derived from coal, tar sands, and other abundant domestic resources.
In 1979, President Carter had solar panels installed on the White House roof to provide both hot water and a symbolic example, and launched an ambitious plan to research and promote the use of solar energy. Funding for the solar energy program was gutted within months of President Carter leaving office, and in 1986, the panels were removed for roof repairs and quietly not returned.
He noted in his memoirs: “Our administration left the country with petroleum inventories at record levels, a natural-gas surplus and a fair distribution system for it, more exploration under way for new petroleum than at any time in history, and an orderly plan for eliminating the unnecessary federal restraints. The rate of growth of domestic coal production doubled, and oil imports and even total consumption dropped rapidly. A substantial portion of the succeeding oil glut was caused by the worldwide shift to more efficient uses of energy and emphasis on fuels other than oil and gas.”
At a 2009 hearing on U.S. energy policy and national security, at which Pres. Carter testified, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry, D-MA, commented that “President Carter had the courage, as president of the United States, to tell the truth to Americans about energy and about these (energy) choices. And he actually set American on the right path in the 1970s. . .Regrettably, the ensuring years saw these efforts unfunded, stripped away. . . .He dealt with these choices every day in the Oval Office and he exerted genuine leadership.”
Environment/Alaska Lands Act: Throughout his presidency, Jimmy Carter outlined an ambitious plan for environmental protection, encompassing programs from pollution control to protecting wildlife and habitats. The Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act of 1980 was one of the most comprehensive conservation acts in American history, setting aside more wild country than had been preserved anywhere in the world—104 million acres of new national parks, wildlife refuges, and other public lands. While creating an unparalleled system of federal reserves protecting wildlife, fish, and wilderness, the legislation also allowed for some development of natural resources and the commercial use of vast areas of the North Slope—leaving available for development 95 percent of Alaska’s most promising oil-bearing lands.
Iran Hostage Crisis: On Nov. 4, 1979, angered by a decision to admit Shah of Iran Reza Pahlavi to the United States for medical treatment, Islamic militants took over the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in support of the Iranian revolution and held 66 Americans hostage.
Every day, the President worked to protect the lives of the hostages and bring them home safely through negotiation. “I was restrained from a preemptive military strike by the realization that the Iranian fanatics would almost certainly kill the hostages in response,” said Carter.
The country’s disillusionment with delays in obtaining release of the hostages led to a precipitous drop in support and an overwhelming victory for Ronald Reagan on election day 1980, the day after the one-year anniversary of the taking of the hostages.
In his last days as president, President Carter rarely left the Oval Office as he oversaw the last details of negotiations that set the hostages free and put them on a plane coming home. Minutes after Ronald Reagan took the oath of office in January 1981, President Carter was informed that the hostages had left Iranian air space.