Jimmy Carter was a President with a difference and even today he is still quite appreciated for his philanthropic work although his term as President was marked by a rather benign foreign policy which unfortunately did not always work and left him with considerable baggage in this respect.
Perhaps the American nation had high expectations regarding foreign policy especially after the disaster of the Watergate scandal and the quite uneventful Presidency of Gerald Ford. Notwithstanding all this, Carter was also quite unlucky in the sense that a number of issues occurred on his watch which could have been avoided especially the Iranian Revolution and the issue regarding unemployment and the fall of the US economy into recession. Perhaps Carter was not as strong willed as one would have expected him to be in the circumstances but that does not necessarily mean he was a bad President anyway.
Carter was elected with a slim majority although he did win a substantial majority in the Electoral College largely due to the fact that he was a favourite son from Georgia and carried a substantial number of Southern states which have never returned back to the Democratic column since. This made his victory slightly dependent on senators and Congressmen who were still rather conservative on civil rights issues and this made his life difficult as time went by. Certain economic decisions coupled with the problem of OPEC continued to create further problems for him and this meant that his Presidency eventually degenerated into a free for all with conflicts high on the agenda. However there is little that could have been done differently especially with regards to the foreign policy issues which arose, particularly the ones with Iran where the revolution practically took everyone by surprise with the United States obviously a target for Muslim reprehension and attacks.
Comparison to Nixon
Richard Nixon was always a corrupt and morally reprehensible President who ended up skewered on his own fork with the Watergate Scandal. That also meant that the American public viewed the Presidency with some disdain and Carter obviously had to work hard to rebuild the reputation of the institution. Whether he succeeded or not was quite debatable although one has to say that under his watch several policy initiatives to help the poor and downtrodden were undertaken. Nixon was perhaps more successful on the foreign policy front especially when he managed to open up diplomatic relations with China which was not exactly a country that had a lot going for it at the time. Carter was perhaps very much a calmer person in this regard and did not want to engage in any sort of conflict with other countries and preferred a foreign policy which was certainly not belligerent at all.
Carter was definitely not corrupt and was very much a forward thinker in terms of local issues and he had a lot of respect for the poor unlike Nixon who was brash and belligerent and unashamedly courted rich contacts for his own personal gain, something which Carter would definitely not dream of doing. He was steadfast and very virulent on the principles in which he believed in accordingly, very much so in the context of those troubled times which affected him singularly and accordingly.
Comparison with Reagan
Ronald Reagan who came after Carter was perceived as a much more successful President perhaps due to the fact that he was much more of a belligerent when it came to foreign policy. Carter would certainly have not tackled the Libya issue the way Reagan tackled it simply due to the fact that the latter was someone who didn’t think before he acted.
Carter was also very much an optimist in international affairs and did not wish to be too abrasive especially with regard to certain conflicting issues such as the ones surrounding Russia and other Communist countries.
Domestically Carter also differed from Regan as he was very much in favour of big government on several issues, something which Reagan abhorred. He was also very much a forward thinker with regard to medical issues and the whole disaster which happened under Reagan’s watch would definitely have not happened under Carter.
Role as post-Presidency statesman
Today Jimmy Carter is very much highly regarded as a statesman who is consistently held in high esteem especially with countries where the US has difficult diplomatic relations. On more than one occasion he has visited hot countries such as North Korea and Iran and holds an excellent rapport with the leaders there. This is something which could definitely not be achieved under other Presidents such as George Bush and Barrack Obama and demonstrates his standing in international affairs which is certainly of the highest order.
Carter’s relationship with the FBI was also something of an issue and he definitely did not care much for the brazen interrogation techniques used by that institution.
Today he also remains a very vocal critic against torture methods such was waterboarding and suchlike principally due to his experience as being a patient negotiator. More often than not he has been instrumental in securing the release of American prisoners held in high security jails in countries which are deemed as hotspots. His valuable work in the United Nations and as a special representative in countries where there is war and civil strife is also something which must be noted accordingly.
He was also the recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002 largely for his sterling work in developing nations and also for his role as a vocal critic of the Israel-Palestinian peace conflict. Carter’s experience as Governor of Georgia before his presidency also helps to put certain issues into perspective especially the fact that his life was undoubtedly permeated by decision making on civil rights issues. In his role as a post Presidency statesman, Carter has been at the forefront of several important military issues and has worked assiduously to promote peace in this regard. He is also the founder of a non-profit organization together with his wife Roslyn where he tirelessly works to promote issues of an environmental and human nature such as deforestation, desertification and hunger where he has been particularly active.
Some other issues may appear controversial such as Carter’s support of the death penalty and abortion although he was personally opposed to them. Perhaps the issue of the United States boycott of the Moscow Olympic Games was something which he could have done without but with hindsight there was not much which could have been done in the circumstances.
The energy crises which led to the creation of the Department of Energy was also an important step which Carter does not seem to have taken much credit for. The fact that he ran as a Southern moderate also made his sweep of these states the final time that a Democratic candidate would ever be considered to be a force in the South which is now typically Republican.
Conclusion – Carter as a moderate
Jimmy Carter is perhaps seen as one of the weakest Presidents of modern times but a re-appraisal of his work shows that this is really not the case. The country was faced with significant economic and social problems at the time and Carter was blameless in several of them and he did manage to act judiciously and with a certain wisdom in several of the situations with which he was faced with.
Finally Carter’s standing in today’s day and age as an international statesman is certainly far higher than that enjoyed by both Bush presidents and to a certain extent also be Bill Clinton. This is definitely testament to his reputation which survives to this unabated and which continues to flourish whenever there are problems in the world.
Carter J: Energy policy speech (April 1977) US Library of Congress, Print
Gillon S, American Paradox, Chapter 11, New York, Simon and Schuster 2005, Print
Wells F, American Capitalism, 84-109. New York, Alfred F Knopf 2003, Print