TURES COLUMN: Evaluating Jimmy Carter’s presidency, with objective evidence

Published 10:45 am Saturday, February 25, 2023

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Ever since former President Jimmy Carter checked into hospice care, people have been debating his legacy. His ex-presidency record is secure as one of the greatest in American history, but how about his term in office?

Students taking my “Congress and the Presidency” class at LaGrange College (Andrew Cunningham, Jaydon Parrish, Jake Thrailkill, Emaleigh Turner, Hannah Godfrey, Cooper Dolhancyk and Paul Ramsay) took on an assignment to evaluate Carter’s economic record, and evidence of his accomplishments, using objective numbers instead of more subjective evaluations by C-SPAN Presidential historians, who put him 26th best.

You don’t need to be an economist to know inflation was tough during Carter’s term. Analysis of nearly 30 major economies of the world in 1979 from global-rates.com, in the midst of the price spike, showed the USA to be close to the midpoint of these countries. When it came to unemployment, joblessness fell during his term from 8% to 6.5%, only to rebound again thanks to the Energy Crisis. Under Reagan, the unemployment rate rose to 10.8% before coming down just before his reelection bid.

Such tough times were reflected in what happened to other leaders during that time. From the late 1970s to the first years of the 1980s, from the United Kingdom to France to Italy to Sweden, incumbents were tossed out for a global recession that was not the responsibility of a single country. Carter was in office at the wrong economic time to run for reelection.

In terms of foreign policy, most people think of the Iran hostage crisis. Despite the pain and blow to American prestige, all 66 hostages were released after 444 days due to intense negotiation by the Carter Administration, though eight members of our armed forces were killed in a botched rescue operation. In the 1980s, 25 Americans were held hostage in Lebanon by terrorists; three were executed, and one was killed by terrorists who took TWA Flight 847 hostage, not counting the hundreds of U.S. military and embassy deaths in Lebanon during a multinational security operation. One U.S. hostage spent nearly 2,500 days in captivity.

President Carter is also well known for the Camp David Accords, peace between Israel and Egypt. The treaty still works, after more than forty years in force. Is that an impressive length of time? According to my students, research shows the average peace treaty lasts about two years, according to cited sources reported by Brian Willson.

Perhaps the statistic that impressed my students the most about Jimmy Carter was his post-Watergate clean government. They found that in four years, there was only one indictment from someone in the Carter Administration, and no criminal conviction. Compare that statistic to the 16 criminal indictments and 16 convictions from the George W. Bush Administration, the 26 criminal indictments (and 16 convictions) from the Reagan Administration, and the 76 criminal indictments from the Nixon Administration (with 55 criminal convictions).

Students found that Carter started strong with his approval ratings, having defeated an incumbent (Gerald Ford) and replacing the specter of Watergate. Like most presidents, Carter slid in approval ratings, thanks to stagflation and the Iranian Hostage Crisis to 31 percent, costing him a second term in office. But did people hate Carter? Gallup polling showed Carter averaged 70% in favorability ratings with the public during his time in office, equal to Ronald Reagan’s average for his two terms in office. In other words, Americans didn’t like the times, but they still liked President Jimmy Carter the person.

In conclusion, Carter was in the White House at a tough economic time; that and the Iran Hostage Crisis hurt his approval ratings and denied him a second term. But in terms of peace and a dearth of political scandals, you can see why the American people gave him high favorability marks, even before he left office to become the standard for former presidents.