Miller Center

American President

A Reference Resource

Impact and Legacy

Jimmy Carter is much more highly regarded today than when he lost his bid for reelection in 1980. He has produced an exemplary post-presidency, and today there is an increased appreciation for the enormity of the task he took on in 1977, if not for the measures he took to deal with the crises that he faced. Carter took office just thirty months after a President had left the entire federal government in a shambles. He faced epic challenges—the energy crisis, Soviet aggression, Iran, and above all, a deep mistrust of leadership by his citizens. He was hard working and conscientious. But he often seemed like a player out of position, a man more suited to be secretary of energy than president. Carter became President by narrowly defeating an uninspiring, unelected chief executive heir to the worst presidential scandal in history. The nomination was his largely because in the decade before 1976, Democratic leadership in the nation had been decimated by scandal, Vietnam, and an assassination.

Jimmy Carter was the second death knell for the old liberal politics of the 1960s. The first had been the Democratic candidate preceding him, George McGovern. Carter was successful largely because he was one of the first to discern the public's overall disaffection with liberalism that endures to this day. At every turn he sought to portray himself as a new type of Democrat.

As President, Carter revived a long-dormant practice of presidential mediation in disputes between other nations, something every succeeding chief executive has emulated to varying degrees. His insistence on American leadership in the protection of human rights around the world helped to subvert the power of communist and other dictatorial regimes, and eventually led to the human rights initiatives of the 1980s and 1990s. His stubborn independence, a great asset while climbing to the presidency, was in many ways his downfall once he attained the office. His refusal to engage in a give and take with Congress; the ill-conceived boycott of the Olympic Games; his inability to use force effectively to resolve the crisis in Iran; his inability to build coalitions and to be flexible in dealings with friends and foes. These varied characteristics combined to brand him as ineffectual.

There was always, it seemed, something unlucky about him: massive public disaffection with government, the fires of crisis breaking out at home and abroad, the hostile post-Watergate press, and, by the end of his term, a challenge by a smooth, consummately telegenic challenger with an engaging new conservative message.