October 1st is Jimmy Carter’s 91st birthday, a day made more poignant by the news that he struggles with the disease that claimed the lives of his father, his mother and his three siblings. After the public announcement of Carter’s cancer diagnosis, commentators were quick to praise the former president for his remarkably active post-presidency and for personal acts of charity, faith and promotion of democracy.
This is as it should be.
But I belong to a small group of scholars who also believe that Carter should be praised for success in the White House. He was not a great president, but his record in office was better than most people acknowledge.
In the only major candidate debate in the 1980 election cycle, Ronald Reagan famously asked if Americans were “better off” than they had been four years earlier. This was a time of intense public anxiety about the economy. Interest rates, inflation and unemployment were all historically high. Energy prices had endured two sudden spikes in the 1970s (one producing temporary gasoline shortages and long lines at gas stations) and every sector of the economy dependent on the cost of oil faced an uncertain future.
Though the American people concluded that they were not better off in 1980, some were. Unemployment fell in every year of the Carter administration except the last one. In 1980, inflation was finally being addressed by Paul Volker, Carter’s appointee to head the Federal Reserve. Volker’s tight money policies produced temporary hardships that would later lead to long-term stability.
In Carter’s four years in the White House, real growth of GDP averaged a respectable 3.1 percent a year — a better record than Eisenhower, Nixon, Ford, or Reagan and much better than the experience of twenty-first-century presidents.
High interest rates and inflation wreaked havoc for first-time homebuyers in the late 1970s, but established families with fixed-rate mortgages from an earlier era saw their debts decline while property prices rose. They were actually better off.
In foreign policy, Carter made more progress in the vexing Middle East peace process than any of his predecessors or successors. The Camp David Accords did not lead to a final settlement of the disputes between Israel and her Arab neighbors, but they ended Israeli hostilities with Egypt and took a major step in the direction of peace that has held for decades.
Carter pushed for the highly unpopular Panama Canal treaties that foreign policy experts — Republican and Democrat — uniformly favored, and lobbied 68 senators to cast controversial treaty ratification votes that cost many of them their political career.
In Iran, he failed in a risk-ridden rescue mission, but succeeded in negotiating a final release of the American diplomats held hostage. With the Soviet Union, he gradually accepted the decline of détente and delivered a return to higher military budgets, more cautious arms control negotiations and stern warnings against Soviet mischief-making in the Persian Gulf.
On the world stage, Carter made human rights a core concern in American foreign policy, not just a slogan.
Not a bad record for four years in office. And a longer list of accomplishments would include a forward-looking energy policy, the Alaska land bill, deregulation of phone and airline services, the establishment of formal diplomatic relations with China, amnesty for Vietnam-era draft dodgers and the first federal bailout of the Chrysler corporation.
Of course, this record did not win reelection. A better politician might have postponed the Panama decision or the appointment of an inflation-fighting central banker. Carter received good political advice, from his wife among others, to put off controversial actions until after 1980. He never took that advice. He sincerely believed that the American people would see the sense and necessity of what he was doing.
I once introduced former President Carter to students at Washington and Lee University by comparing him to the university’s namesake president, George Washington. Both were southerners, farmers and military men known for their integrity. Both were fiscal conservatives and reluctant partisans who had problems with Islamic hostage takers. Carter politely chided me for an inappropriate introduction and said that none of today’s politicians should be compared to our Founding Father. “Besides,” he said, “Washington got reelected.”
This essay was originally published in the Roanoke Times on October 1, 2015.