Long-time readers know I am a constitutional conservative/libertarian and that I hold nothing back in criticizing the toxic left. When Teddy Kennedy died, I wrote a controversial piece pointing out what a disaster of a person he was, and I remain proud of that post.
I reached my years of political awareness in the late 1970s, and let’s face it, those years were chaotic, and Jimmy Carter was president. The United States suffered through gas lines and massive inflation and seemingly one foreign policy crisis after another (Afghanistan, Iran, the hostages in Iran, El Salvador, Nicaragua, etc, etc). For those of us who lived through those times, the relative calm of the Trump years is, so far, noteworthy. When I was a teenager, I felt like the United States was about to fall apart literally every day.
And the Reagan years of the 1980s were prosperous and filled with foreign policy successes culminating in the fall of the Soviet Union and the seeming end of Communism. So, the conventional wisdom is: Jimmy Carter – disaster; Reagan – massive winner.
What people are missing is that almost all of Reagan’s biggest successes were put into motion by President Carter. Carter laid the foundation for the vast majority of Reagan’s economic and foreign policy achievements. If Carter had been elected for a second term, he would have gotten credit for turning the economy around and laying the groundwork for the end of the Soviet Union. But of course he did not, so many people see Carter as an ineffectual lightweight.
Let me try to convince you that Jimmy Carter has been underrated and indeed promoted many policies that bore fruit after he left office.
Paul Volcker appointed chairman of the Fed
It may be difficult for young people today to understand how bad the economy was through most of the 1970s. The primary problem was inflation, which was in the double digits during critical times. Today inflation is less than two percent. A world of 12 to 14 percent inflation means good in the stores are constantly going up in price and consumers feel they can never keep up. I remember going to the grocery store and seeing the checkers going down the rows constantly raising prices of bread, cereal, meat, milk, eggs – everything. We would go back two days later, and the prices had gone up yet again.
And the economy had created a mental environment where people began to accept the idea of massive inflation. It seemed like something we would just have to learn to live with. But of course massive inflation hurts the poor most of all (and I was quite poor in those days). Mentally, most people I knew had come to accept a sense of decline. We would never get ahead – we would always be poor.
Jimmy Carter appointed Paul Volcker to the head of the Federal Reserve 1979, and Volcker adopted the controversial position of massively raising interests rates to deal with inflation. You can read more about it here. It took two years, and Jimmy Carter was voted out in 1980, but by the early 1980s inflation had virtually disappeared. The policy worked so well that there was massive deflation in many goods during the 1980s. I remember watching gas prices crater after constantly going up in the 1970s, and it was a beautiful thing for drivers.
The destruction of double-digit inflation also created a new sense that the United States was back and that the country would not fall apart at any moment. The new optimism created the economic boom of the 1980s, and led to Reagan’s massive reelection victory in 1984. I will also point out that it meant literally millions of new jobs for people like myself. People in my family went from poor to upper middle class during the 1980s, and it is directly linked to the improvement in the economy.
Now, to be fair, a lot of the economic success of the 1980s was due to the Reagan tax cuts, which Carter probably would not have favored, but one simply cannot the rule out the importance of ending double-digit inflation. And Jimmy Carter and Paul Volcker deserve credit for destroying inflation, not President Reagan. It is simply a fact.
Believe it or not, there was a time when Democrats were not completely ignorant of basic economics. JFK, for example, promoted tax cuts in the early 1960s that created the boom of that decade. And in the 1970s, Democrats, including the execrable Ted Kennedy, promoted deregulation precisely because it is good economic policy and helps the poor.
Oh that the Democrats of today would learn a bit of history!
One of the great underreported stories of our time is that the basic foundations of economic success from the 1980s to today were created by the wave of deregulation promoted by many Democrats, including President Carter, in the 1970s and the early 1980s. In the space of a few years, the country saw deregulation of the airlines, the trains, the trucking business, natural gas and telecom.
It is difficult to imagine now, but there was a time when a cross-country phone call cost a week’s salary. An economy seat from San Francisco to New York was the equivalent of $2000 in today’s money (and most people smoked on the plane, by the way). Conservatives and liberals united against the high costs created by regulation, and they passed a series of bills and measures to end regulatory capture on a federal and state level.
The deregulation of the 1970s and early 1980s created new industries which of course created new jobs. In the 1970s, there was only one telephone company, AT&T. By 1990, there were dozens of phone companies, all offering cheaper prices. The same thing happened in many other industries.
President Carter deserves credit for promoting much of the deregulation that helped create the economic booms that followed him.
The Middle East was even more of a mess in the 1970s than it is today. The region suffered through explosive wars in 1967 and 1973, and the rise of the PLO and other terrorist groups made it seem that there would never be peace.
The Camp David accords, sponsored by President Carter, were a huge success. Israel and Egypt are still at peace today in part because of hard work by the Carter administration. The great accomplish should not be forgotten: Jimmy Carter deserves a lot of credit.
Believe it or not, President Carter also deserves a lot of credit for laying the foundation for Reagan’s policy on the Soviet Union. In many ways, Reagan took Carter’s policy of 1979 and added to it, rather than create an entirely new approach.
I would encourage people who think Carter was a disaster on foreign policy to read this article, which points out many of his successes. It may help you see his presidency as more nuanced than you imagine.
Jimmy Carter is not on my list of best presidents
To be clear, Jimmy Carter is not on my list of the 10 best presidents in U.S. history. Most of the best presidents (those who actually followed the Constitution) served in the 1800s. The best president of the last 100 years is Calvin Coolidge, and Jimmy Carter does not come close to being as good as silent Cal. But Jimmy Carter was, in my opinion, better than all of the presidents who followed him, except for Reagan (and the jury is still out on Trump). He was better than Ford and Nixon and LBJ. He was as good as JFK. So, in my opinion, Jimmy Carter is tied for the second best president of my lifetime, after Reagan.
You don’t have to remind me about Carter’s many failures in Afghanistan, Iran and Central America. You don’t have to remind me about the many terrible judges he nominated. He don’t have to remind me about his unfortunate flirtation with anti-semitism. I lived through the Carter years, and I know all of those things about Jimmy Carter, but I still think that, overall, he is underrated.
If one of my conservative friends can read this article and say to himself, “I still hate Jimmy Carter, but he did do a few good things,” than I will consider it a success.