Was Jimmy Carter a Good President?

Jimmy Carter
Jimmy Carter was the 39th President of the United States.
Last modified: December 15, 2022

President Jimmy Carter is well noted for his advocacy and charitable work following his presidency and is one of the most active post-presidency presidents. 

His tenure as president in the White House (1977 to 1981) was marked by several significant events. Some were inflation and poor economic performance, the war in Afghanistan, the hostage crisis in Iran that concluded his time as president, and the energy crisis. 

Carter’s presidency is often viewed in a negative light. However, with the benefit of hindsight, his tenure is also noted for his courage during tumultuous times.

Jimmy Carter’s Presidential Legacy

Carter became president almost by default, and once in office, things seemed to go against him from the start. 

The White House
The White House, where Jimmy Carter resided while president.

Carter’s presidency oscillated between tremendous triumphs and terrible failures.

His presidency mirrored the zeitgeist of 1970s America, a gritty period characterized by economic woes, a decade full of change that bridged the gap from post-war Americana of the 1950s and 60’s to the new-age 1980s full of rampant consumerism and excess.

Carter’s overall legacy can be better viewed by delving into the impact of several key aspects of his presidency. 

Media image

Carter was negatively affected by the media portrayal of his presidency.

Carter’s “malaise speech,” in which he criticized America’s purpose and future, did not go over well and can be seen as a tremendous failure. 

Although Carter was not inept, he was seen as such by the media and, subsequently, by the American public. 

Energy sector legacy

Carter’s administration and energy policies worked in the long run, as oil consumption lessened from 48% to 40% during his tenure.

The country was also left with high inventories of oil and natural gas, a tremendous boon to the Ronald Reagan administration that followed.

Ronald Reagan
Ronald Reagan replaced Jimmy Carter in the White House in 1982 and was able to take advantage of the oil boom.

Many of Carter’s forward-thinking policies helped usher in American energy independence, relying less on oil from overseas and more on domestic oil and energy from other sources like natural gas. 

Foreign affairs legacy

In the minds of most American citizens, Jimmy Carter’s legacy is forever linked with his inability to end the Iran hostage crisis. The dismal failure of the rescue attempt punctuated this. The whole situation tarnished his image significantly.

Sinai Peninsula
Sinai Peninsula.

Outside of the Camp David Accords, a tremendous accomplishment, Carter’s foreign policy campaigns were tepid and often achieved mixed results. This is especially true for Carter’s relationships with the Soviet Union and China. 

Ultimately, many of Carter’s international relations goals that he set out at the beginning of his presidency failed to come to fruition.

Unexpected challenges arose and tested the president, some of which were met with relatively paltry results. 

Jimmy Carter’s Overall Legacy

It cannot be said that Jimmy Carter was a good president, as America was divided and struggling during his time in the White House. However, many problems were not his fault and resulted from extraordinary circumstances. 

Carter’s presidency is remembered through a distorted lens of negative media portrayal, which is becoming more evident over time. He was a decent man who had to deal with one of the most turbulent times in American history. 

Carter did have several major accomplishments that were unfortunately drowned out by several miserable failures. 

In recent years, partly due to his excellent post-presidency advocacy and charitable work, as well as an objective look at the enormous challenges he faced from external forces, Jimmy Carter’s legacy has improved significantly. 

Government buildings
Washington, DC.

Carter is noted for being hard-working and conscientious as president of the United States while also being stubbornly independent.

Independence is a character trait that made him difficult to work with and, at times, obstructed him from getting things done in Washington, DC.

Perhaps the biggest challenge President Carter and his legacy faced was simply timing and luck. Carter had the misfortune of becoming president at one of the most anti-political times in US history. He dealt with an intensely negative post-Watergate press and had various crises beyond his control at home and abroad.

Below are the details and specifics of Jimmy Carter’s presidency

Carter’s Presidency: The election of 1976

Jimmy Carter began his presidential campaign unknown, with practically no national profile. His rather anonymous profile worked to his advantage in the run-up to the election. 

Watergate Hotel
Watergate Complex in Washington, D.C.

The public was reeling from the horrors of the Vietnam War and the distasteful Watergate scandal, leaving them wary of established politicians and eager for someone outside the DC political sphere. 

Carter played up his outsiderness, campaigning across the country and outlasting his democratic opponents, and garnering the Democrat party’s nomination at the Democratic Convention that summer.

Carter vs. Ford

Carter faced off with incumbent though unelected, president Gerald Ford, who took over for Richard Nixon following the disgraced president’s resignation.

Much of Ford’s chances were intertwined with the legacy of Richard Nixon, and the media portrayed Ford in a negative light, being made fun of relentlessly by television programs like Saturday Night Live

Carter defeated Ford in an extremely close election, with the two splitting the eight elector-heavy states. 

Carter’s Presidency

Carter sought to run the country like he ran his peanut farm in Georgia, with reserved austerity.

He was a progressive reformer modeled in the Wilsonian tradition, which meant that he intended to act with honesty and openness. 

President Nixon
President Carter attempted to lose the ‘imperial President’ image of his predecessors.

Carter was attempting to shake off the image of the last two-term presidents – Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard Nixon, who were deemed “imperial presidents.”

Domestic affairs

The Carter administration was characterized by tense relations with Congress, which shot down several of Carter’s proposed bills.

At the same time, Carter, in turn, vetoed a public works bill that Congress heavily favored. 

Despite the mutual mistrust and general lack of cooperation, Carter successfully backed Democrat programs, including raising the minimum wage.

Carter’s policy for deregulating the transportation industries- railroad, trucking, and airlines – lowered transportation costs for businesses and consumers.

Energy policy

The 39th president’s most significant domestic policy success came in energy policy, although he received little to no credit at the time. 

Oil rig
President Carter sought to make the United States more energy-independent.

His primary goal was to reduce the United States’ heavy dependency on foreign oil and wastefulness in energy consumption. 

Carter passed the Emergency Natural Gas Act to regulate existing energy suppliers and to research new energy sources with a focus on sustainable energy (wind, solar.)

Foreign affairs

As a one-term governor from Georgia, Jimmy Carter had little to no international experience before assuming the presidency.

Carter wanted the United States to take the lead in propagating human rights worldwide and that the military should avoid intervening abroad as seldom as possible. 

Carter’s top two foreign policy aides, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Carter’s national security advisor, and Cyrus Vance, secretary of state, had contrasting styles and frequently clashed over the goals, tactics, and strategies of Carter’s foreign policy.

Camp David Accords

Jimmy Carter’s greatest foreign policy triumph came at the Camp David Accords, which brought Israeli Prime Minister Meachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat to peace talks following the Yom Kippur War of 1973. 

In September of 1978, at the president’s retreat Camp David, Carter shuttled between the Egyptian and Israeli delegations working relentlessly to mediate an agreement between the two sides. 

Begin, and Sadat eventually came to a historic agreement that had Israel remove itself from the Sinai peninsula and saw both governments recognize each other officially and sign a peace treaty.

Iran hostage crisis

Following the Islamic Revolution of 1979, the ousted and exiled Shah of Iran was living in Mexico and dying of cancer when president Carter offered him medical treatment and refuge in the United States, which infuriated the Iranian people, who already viewed America as “the great Satan.” 

In response, the American embassy in Tehran was overrun and ransacked by Islamic student militants who subsequently kidnapped and held 66 Americans hostage, demanding the shah’s return to Iran as well as money and property and an apology from the United States. 

Carter went to work immediately, attempting to negotiate with Iranian leadership while also freezing Iranian assets, but nothing seemed to work.

Botched rescue

After making no significant breakthroughs for months, Carter gave the go-ahead for an ambitious rescue plan led by military special forces. 

The mission was doomed from the start as three of the eight helicopters used in the rescue operation developed mechanical problems, and one crashed into an aircraft in the Iranian desert, killing eight soldiers onboard. 

The Iranians were alerted and dispersed each American hostage to remote and secretive locations across Iran.

The whole mission failed.

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