Miller Center

American President

A Reference Resource

Domestic Affairs

Jimmy Carter sought to run the country the way he had run his farm—with unassuming austerity. This would be no "imperial presidency" like those of Johnson and Nixon. On inauguration day, Carter got out of the limousine and walked to the White House, delighting the crowd and horrifying the Secret Service who sought to protect him. His inauguration outfit was a business suit not formal wear, and the inaugural festivities were low key. When Carter addressed the nation, he wore a cardigan sweater and adopted an air of studied informality.

Carter came from an unusual Southern political culture. While most Democratic politicians were "good ole boys," happy to participate in corrupt county courthouse rings and city machines, adept at backslapping and deal making, Carter came from the Wilsonian southern tradition, which was far different. He was a reformer and progressive, who put his faith in science and technology to advance the human condition, even as he retained his moral values from his deep religious faith. He thought political leadership should function for the common good, not to please a set of organized constituencies. Like Woodrow Wilson, he intended to act with honesty and candor, leading people by setting an example, and by asking them to reach a higher moral plane. He promised he would never lie to the American people.

Relations with Congress

The country desperately wanted the president to succeed. Carter began with a series of bold strokes. He pardoned Vietnam-era draft resisters, killed funding for the B-1 bomber airplane, and pushed for a comprehensive consumer-protection bill. His opposition to a traditional rivers and harbors "pork barrel" bill early in his term was fiercely resisted by his own congressional leaders. He had to back down, but his charges that these bills were wasteful and corrupt left a bad taste in the mouths of the legislators with whom he would have to deal.

As when he was governor, Carter had an abiding dislike for the backroom dealing that is so pervasive in Washington. Congress which found the new president hard to deal with, quickly sensed his shallow public support. With this knowledge, Congress asserted its power over the president by shooting down the consumer-protection bill and the labor reform package. Carter responded by vetoing a public works package in 1978 on the grounds that it was inflationary. A pattern of mutual distrust and contempt had been set. When Congress transformed his tax plan into new favors for special interests, Carter called the taxing committees "a pack of ravenous wolves."

Carter did have some successes with Congress, but often because he backed existing Democratic programs, such as raising the minimum wage. The president did have success with his own program to deregulate the airline, trucking, and railroad industries, which eventually resulted in lower transportation costs for industry and consumers. He also got Congress to establish a "superfund" to clean up toxic waste sites.

Energy Policy Success

Carter's main achievement involved energy policy, though he would receive little credit for it during his term. Despite the lip service paid by American presidents to reducing energy dependence, U.S. oil imports had shot up 65 percent annually since 1973. In 1976 the nation was consuming one-quarter of all Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) production. The U.S. remained wasteful in energy use, with consumption per capita 2.3 times the average for nations in the European Economic Community and 2.6 times Japan's. Carter set out to reduce this dependence.

The president got Congress to pass the Emergency Natural Gas Act, which would authorize the national government to allocate interstate natural gas. He created a Department of Energy to regulate existing energy suppliers and fund research on new sources of energy, particularly sustainable (wind and solar power) and ecologically sound sources. His Energy Security Act created the U.S. Synthetic Fuels Corporation, which would provide $20 billion in joint ventures with private industry. Carter signed his first energy package into law on November 9, 1978. The deregulation of oil and natural gas prices that resulted would lead to a vast increase in the supply of energy in the 1980s, and consequently a lowering of prices.

During Carter's term, however, the actions of the OPEC oil cartel (foreign oil producers) resulted in an increase in oil prices, from $13 a barrel to over $34. With America so dependent on oil, this huge price increase resulted in a run-up in inflation. Carter asked Congress to accelerate stockpiling 500 million barrels of crude oil in a national security reserve, setting target date by end of 1980 instead of 1982 (the deadline set by the Ford administration). The administration also developed new conservation measures that would sharply reduce industry's use of fuels, as well as automobile mileage standards. Strip mining would now be regulated by the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act, a victory for environmentalists.

Carter had other successes in energy policy, particularly in nuclear energy policy, in which he was an expert. He got Congress to abolish the powerful Joint Committee on Atomic Energy, a step that would make it easier to block breeder reactors and move toward light-water reactors of the kind favored by the administration. Carter won his route for a soon to be constructed oil pipeline in Alaska. He killed funding for the Clinch River Breeder Reactor, because the plutonium reactor technology would increase the risk of nuclear proliferation if adopted elsewhere in the world. Instead, Congress authorized and funded a shutdown of the reactor.

By April 1980, he had gotten much of his second energy package through, including a Crude Oil Windfall Profits Tax (with revenues designated for the general Treasury but not for specific energy projects), which would expire in 1993 or before, if the full amount of $227 billion had been collected. But there were two major defeats: Congress overrode a presidential veto of a bill that Congress had passed repealing a $4.62 per barrel oil import fee—the first time in twenty-eight years that a Congress had overridden a veto by a president from the majority party. It also defeated the Energy Mobilization Board that Carter had proposed to cut through "red tape" in developing new sources of energy.

While Americans had to endure long gas lines during the summer of 1979 and higher prices at the pump—effects of the Iranian revolution of that same year— Carter's program by and large worked. Consumption of foreign oil did go down, from 48 percent when Carter took office to 40 percent in 1980, with a reduction of 1.8 million barrels a day. When Carter left office there were high inventories of oil and a surplus of natural gas, delivered by a more rational distribution system. There was greater oil exploration than before, leading eventually to an oil glut and a drop in prices-which Carter's Department of Energy had not predicted. Between 1980 and 1985, domestic production would increased by almost 1 million barrels a day, while imports of crude oil and petroleum products declined from 8.2 to 4.5 million barrels a day. His goal of reducing U.S. dependency on foreign sources succeeded, at least temporarily.

Poor Media Image

But Carter was given little credit for these accomplishments. The energy program was complex, and no one could understand what was happening. But energy prices and taxes were going up, and that was easily understandable. Carter worsened his image problem by giving the so-called "malaise" (a French word meaning illness) speech, in which he described a lack of confidence in America's purpose and its future. In addition to admitting that people lacked confidence in his leadership, Carter blamed the crisis of America's spirit on the American people themselves. He then compounded his difficulties by firing four cabinet secretaries, transferring several others, and asking for resignations of dozens of lower level officials. Media commentators wondered if Carter was losing his grip. He went down sharply in the polls and never recovered from the "malaise" speech.

Carter gained a reputation for political ineptitude, even though his actual record in dealing with Congress belied that image. His success rate in getting presidential initiatives through Congress was much higher than that of his predecessors Eisenhower, Nixon, Ford, and successors Reagan and Bush. One might expect a president with a majority in Congress to do better than presidents facing the opposition party majorities. But Carter was also close to Johnson's success rates. Carter did not like to bargain and appeared arrogant and aloof, but at the end of the day, he usually wound up with much of what he sought from Congress. His major problem was that the perception of his leadership did not correspond with the reality of his performance.

Scandal and Personal Embarrassments

Again and again during the campaign, Carter had presented himself as a man of honesty. Americans for the most part believed in their president, but the trust did not extend to some key members of his administration. His budget director had to be fired a year into the administration when he was connected to unsavory banking practices in Georgia. Later Lance was exonerated. There were allegations that Carter's treasury secretary had allowed a company he chaired to conduct illegal payoffs in doing business. Moreover, the president's chief of staff was accused of using cocaine in the White House. Eventually these charges too were shown to be false, but the damage to Carter's own reputation for honesty remained.

The president's negative press coverage also touched Carter's family. His sister, Ruth Carter Stapleton, appeared in public holding hands with a notorious pornographer, claiming she had converted him to Christianity. Billy Carter, the president's younger brother, quickly became nightly fodder for talk-show comedians with his country-boy image. He marketed his own brand of beer ("Billy Beer") and booked public appearances at bottom-barrel events. Then something not so harmless came to light about him. Libya-a nation that had sponsored terrorism for years-had given Billy Carter nearly $250,000 for an undisclosed reason. The Senate began an investigation of the matter, and the president's embarrassments dragged on.

Even without the scandals, Carter would not have had good press relations. He seemed aloof and condescending, stiff and impersonal with reporters. They chafed at his moralistic, "eat your peas" attitudes, and portrayed him either as either a cynical and manipulative politician or an amateurish incompetent. Carter was not physically clumsy like Ford, but his media images always came out wrong. On one vacation trip, photographers were asked to tag along to get some good photos of Carter relaxing. What they shot (and what networks covered that evening) was Carter trying to beat off a pesky rabbit from a canoeing expedition-and almost tipping over his boat in the process. If any president can be said to have had plain bad luck in dealing with the media, it was Carter.