Jimmy Carter: Washington Outsider in the White House
Jimmy Carter: Washington Outsider in the White House
Jimmy Carter, a Democrat, was elected president in a narrow victory over Gerald Ford in 1976. A former governor of Georgia, Carter presented himself as a political outsider, uncorrupted by Washington. His presidency was favorably marked by a commitment to morality, but scarred by economic crisis, incomplete domestic programs, and some foreign policy crises.
Carter successfully supported a tax cut and the creation of a public works program, which helped reduce unemployment to 5 percent by late 1978. However, Carter failed to push many of his other economic programs through Congress. By the end of Carter’s term, unemployment was again over 7 percent, and inflation hovered around 12 percent.
In efforts to promote conservation and responsible energy use, Carter created the Department of Energy in 1977, proposed taxes on fossil-fuel use, and supported research on alternative energy sources. The most substantive result of these actions was a weak energy bill passed in 1978. The following year, the economy was further hurt by the decade’s second energy shortage, provoked by OPEC’s (the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries) hike in oil prices.
Foreign Affairs: A Mixed Record
Carter is best known for his foreign relations dealings. He supported human rights around the world, working to unveil and halt abuses. Carter also worked to improve relations with nations previously hostile toward the U.S. In 1977, he negotiated a treaty with Panama to transfer the Panama Canal back to the Panamanians in 1999, and officially recognized the People’s Republic of China in 1979.
In June 1979, Carter and Leonid Brezhnev signed SALT II (Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty), but the Senate was hesitant to ratify the treaty. Hopes for ratification were dashed completely in January 1980 when Soviet troops invaded Afghanistan. Carter reacted with a series of anti-Soviet measures, including a boycott of the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow. Growing increasingly hostile toward the USSR, Carter effectively destroyed détente.
Carter’s biggest success and biggest challenge in foreign affairs arose from the Middle East. In September 1978, Carter invited Israel’s leader, Menachem Begin, and Egypt’s leader, Anwar el-Sadat, to Camp David, where they worked out a draft of a treaty between the two warring countries. The Camp David Accords were signed by the two leaders at the White House in March 1979, but quickly fell apart when Sadat was assassinated by Islamic fundamentalists in 1981.
Adding to this tension, in January 1979 the Shah of Iran, a U.S. ally, fled his country to escape a revolution. In November 1979, when Carter admitted the shah to the U.S., Iranian students stormed the U.S. embassy in Tehran, taking more than fifty Americans hostage. A risky rescue effort in April 1980 failed, and the crisis continued through the end of Carter’s presidency. Carter’s inability to resolve the Iran hostage crisis was a major blemish on his presidency.
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