Jimmy Carter: the most underrated president of the last 60 years

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.

Deregulation

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. 

Foreign policy

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.

This entry was posted in General by Geoff B.. Bookmark the permalink.

About Geoff B.

Geoff B graduated from Stanford University (class of 1985) and worked in journalism for several years until about 1992, when he took up his second career in telecommunications sales. He has held many callings in the Church, but his favorite calling is father and husband. Geoff is active in martial arts and loves hiking and skiing. Geoff has five children and lives in Colorado.

12 thoughts on “Jimmy Carter: the most underrated president of the last 60 years

  1. I was between 0 and 10 years old during the 70s so I don’t remember much, but I do remember the gas lines, the Miracle hockey game, and the hostage crisis. Most of my political views of Carter come from my parents who were die-hard republicans and hated him (and loved Reagan). I appreciate this article for giving me a different perspective on Carter.

  2. The Soviet Union policies of Ronald Reagan were not built on anything from Jimmy Carter. Obama, like Carter, told us that we would never see unemployment below 6 percent again. Inflation slowed because of an economy crashed by Carter years before. Jimmy Carter was a micro-manager (even auditing the use of the White House tennis court) who had no respect in the military. (I raised my hand the same day Reagan did for his first year.) I have said before, Carter was a choir boy, but I say now that this, along w/ the Camp David accords, were his only pluses as President.

  3. Jimmy Carter nominated my Uncle Monroe McKay to the Federal Bench. So good Jimmy on that one. He did create the Dept of Edu, so bad Jimmy on that. I do think that much of his failure was still due to the aftershocks of Watergate. Ford was kind of like a band-aid that was still gushing blood, and with Carter things began to settle from that. I was a very small child during the 70s. I do remember very high inflation and my parents getting something like 15% on their first home loan and thinking they were getting a steal. I also remember my parents being very happy to vote for Regan in 1980. Mom was a Regan Democrat and never looked back — our other uncle, Monroe’s brother, was Gunn McKay who served in Congress as a Democrat from Utah’s First Congressional District during that time as well. That generation of the family was slightly horrified when their children all turned tail and voted for the GOP.

  4. Jimmy Carter was a disaster. Probably worse than Obama. I lived in France in 78 and 79 and even the French were laughing at what a loser he was.

    He did hire Paul Volcker who did ring inflation out of the economy. He was also very good about spending. He used the classic Dem method to handle spending by gutting defense and moving the funds to other areas of the government. He also set up both the Depts of education and Energy. Colossal wastes of money.

    The economy Reagan built was a result of his tax policies and in addition his leadership. Carter’s “malaise” speech was his administration personified.

    I do not have any idea what you are referring to when you talk about Dems rolling back regulation. This is the party of the ambulance chasing trial lawyer. They do not roll back the administrative state.

    His foreign policy was a nightmare from Iran to Afghanistan. The most naïve president in history.

    To top off his presidential term, his time after his presidency is undoubtedly the worst in history as well. He undermined both Repub and Dem presidents around the world. Israel, North Korea, Iran, etcetera. He has been a lap dog for the UN undermining US interests at will. The current nightmare in Venezuela possibly could have been avoided but for Carter’s sanctioning a bogus reelection of Chavez.

    Disaster.

  5. I don’t see Camp David as representing real change, but as a launching point for paying the Egyptians handsomely to play nice. Egypt is perennially the second largest recipient of US foreign aid every year since then. So, if we wanted to call paying off a foreign government every year for the last 40 years a foreign policy win, I suppose you could. But I am a bit skeptical.

    Likewise, I am skeptical of your assertion that he would have been nearly the cold warrior that Reagan was. Carter would never have spent money on the military, which is what ultimately bankrupted the Soviets. He also lacked the credibility of a puncher. The US didn’t have the same deterrent power with Carter as commander in chief, because it wasn’t clear he would be willing to hit back. The fact that Reagan actually talked tough (which Carter never did) and the fact that people actually believed that Reagan would punch or counterpunch with anyone (which no one believed about Carter) made all the difference.

  6. Most everybody is a mixture of good and bad. Geoff is right that Carter had some good points.

    And Reagan had his bad points too….

    – near total deregulation of Savings&Loans created a debacle. they should have been regulated like banks.
    – RICO took away Fourth Amendment and other freedoms, many innocent people had, and still have, asset forfeiture/confiscation under that. And it’s worse where cops are corrupt. If you were found with a lot of cash, the police could just take it, with no arrest, no charges, as happened with people whose business dealt with a lot of cash, or who had to pay cash for big ticket items.
    – Other privacy losses, regarding travel, including being put off a bus mid trip, with no charges.
    – Immigration amnesty of 1986 (or 1987) which casued illegal immigration to SKYROCKET. It’s basic human nature: If you reward something, you get MORE of it.

  7. I don’t think Carter was a great president either, but … is he our *greatest* ex-president? He’s been a pretty dang good humanitarian, with habitat for humanity and the parasite straws and all that. And he hasn’t done it to enrich himself.

  8. My memories of Carter… I was a missionary at the time. I would’ve preferred Ford over Carter in the 76 election, but Carter’s first term set the stage for Reagan. Had Ford won, Reagan probably would not have won until ‘84. I was at BYU during Reagan’s first term. Those were halcyon days. I agree Paul Volker was a great choice for the Fed chairmanship. I also think Camp David accords were good, but the credit belongs as much to Anwar Sadat… probably one of the best statesmen of the 20th Century.

    What most may find interesting is the mainstream media lambasted Reagan from day one of his presidency: he was too old or to illiterate and uninformed. He was accused of being a puppet of his political handlers. While the media of his day didn’t degenerate to polemics as they have now with Trump, they certainly were not Reagan’s friend.

    I digress. I think Carter is a decent human being, but he was in over his head. He survived because he had a friendly media and Congress. His best “accomplishment” is, to repeat myself… he set the stage for Reagan.

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  10. Jimmy Carter is an exceptionally decent and thoughtful man. Unfortunately, my impression of his presidency will forever be colored by what I experienced while serving as a missionary in France from mid-1979 to mid-1981.

    Back in those days the missionary received monthly checks directly from his/her family. My mother began by sending the recommended amount, which seemed to just barely last the month. As the US Dollar to French Franc exchange rate continued to dip, however, I was getting less and less each month and found myself running out of funds before the next check arrived. After a couple of months in a row of this, my parents started sending larger checks to help me get by.

    I noticed an immediate surge in the exchange rate after the 1980 election. Now I found myself with a little extra money each month. As the rate continued to climb, I had enough extra cash to buy some nice gifts and mementos for my family before returning home. When I returned to France with my little family 12 years later, the exchange rate for US dollars was still around the elevated post 1980 levels.

    For some reason President Carter was unable to project an image of confidence as the custodian of the American economy.

    Cheers.

  11. Geoff,

    Well done. I greatly appreciate this effort for a more nuanced discussion of history.

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