Presidential transition: Jimmy Carter

Presidential transition: Jimmy Carter

He had campaigned against Washington, its wicked ways.
—James Schlesinger, Secretary of Energy, Carter Oral History Project

Who is Jimmy Carter? What does he stand for? What policies will he implement? Many Americans were still asking these questions during Carter’s transition in 1976. The Georgia governor won by a slim margin of  just over 1.6 million votes, so he did not have a strong mandate.

He was the outsider candidate, campaigning against “the swamp,” and his advisors encouraged Carter to continue to project himself that way, as the “citizen president” through the transition and into his presidency. It made him popular early in his first year, but it did have ramifications.

Democrats controlled Congress, yet the Congress had many new faces who did not feel beholden to the president-elect, wanted to pull back on executive power, and saw Carter as inexperienced. As the outsider, Carter felt he could be bolder, sometimes going to Republicans and alienating Democrats. For example, one of Carter’s first priorities was to reorganize government to make it more efficient. Carter visited with congressional leaders in December and early January to discuss the plan, and when Democratic leadership was not very enthusiastic, Carter talked to Republicans.

President Carter felt free to develop a staff and cabinet that was a mix of outsiders, policy experts, and Washington insiders. When it came to hiring staff, the transition team ran into a turf war between the Democratic National Committee (DNC), Director of the Transition Team Jack Watson, and key advisor Hamilton Jordan. Eventually Carter had to intervene and publicly say that Jordan would be in charge of personnel. Carter was also deeply involved in the hiring process, and this slowed it down. Another frustration for Congress was that Carter gave the cabinet secretaries the authority to pick their appointments without the usual White House and congressional consultation.

Political scientist Ralph K. Huitt's description of the outsider role in the Senate can apply to Carter and even to some extent to Donald Trump:

“The Outsider feels impelled to stand for principle absolutely, preferring defeat on those terms to half-a-loaf. He likes to tell people what they should and frequently do not want to hear. He is never so confident of the soundness of his opinions as when he holds them alone. He is as comfortable alone against the crowd as the Senate type is in the bosom of the club; indeed he is probably happiest when he stands by himself against powerful and wrong-headed foes. As a consequence, few people, in the body or outside, are lukewarm toward him; they tend to like or dislike him strongly.”1

Similar to Jimmy Carter, President-elect Donald Trump sees being an outsider as a strength, not a weakness. The question remains, like Jimmy Carter in 1976-1977, is Trump setting out to teach Washington a lesson? And will he be successful?

Excerpts from the Jimmy Carter Oral History Project

President Jimmy Carter

After the election, of course, my primary responsibility was to put together a Cabinet and further to define a specific agenda for the initial weeks of the administration. I also had to try to get acquainted with the members of the Congress with whom I would be working. I turned over to Jack Watson and to my son Chip and a few others the responsibility for the transition period and the actual arrangement for the taking over of the government, and they did a good job of that.


In those processes, we began to learn more about the agenda that ought to be mine when I became President. As I interviewed these people—on an average I interviewed from three to six candidates for a Cabinet post personally—I would ask for their ideas. When I talked to Harold Brown or Charlie Duncan, for instance, I would ask them what they thought ought to be done in the Department of Defense to make it more efficient, to eliminate waste and to have a more orderly and methodical procedure for establishing defense priorities and so forth. It was the same thing with HEW, same thing with Transportation, so as I interviewed people who might be Cabinet officers, I extracted from them their ideas on the top priorities in their mind in their own departments.


At the same time, I was meeting with congressional leaders, who were fairly deferential to my ideas during the transition phase. They came down to Plains; we met at Herman Talmadge’s farm; I went to Washington. I met with every chairman of every major committee in the House or Senate. I had an all-day session at the Smithsonian with both Democratic and Republican leaders and all my Cabinet officers who were involved in important defense matters, just to talk about the agenda for defense and foreign policy.


I was experienced as a Governor. I think I did a good job as Governor. I did a lot of innovative things, all of which have stood the test of time. So I took that experience to Washington, but there were at least two remarkable differences. One was just that the Washington environment was much more of a major factor than was the Atlanta environment on a comparative basis. I could ignore the people in Atlanta who were the social, business, and media leaders, if I so chose, with relative impunity and deal primarily with the members of the legislature. There was a much more isolated relationship between the legislative and executive branch on the one hand, and the general public and the news media on the other, than was the case in Washington where the lobbyists and the law firms and the news media leaders, in particular the columnists and others, were such an important element of government in Washington. And I underestimated that. I don’t think there’s any doubt about it.


It didn’t take us long to realize that the underestimation existed, but by that time, we were not able to repair that mistake. I’m not trying to rationalize too much, but in retrospect, as I wrote the book and thought about it a lot and got probed on every side from Steve and from my editors and Jody and Hamilton and Zbig and others who read it over before it was published, I’m just not sure that there was not an inherent incompatibility there. Whether I could have overcome it by having a series of private luncheons or suppers at the White House for the news media in the first few weeks, I have my doubts. But I’m willing to grant that that’s a possibility.


I think that this was the first realization that our relationship with the press was not going to be harmonious, even though we thought our motives were pure. We thought our agenda was proper. We thought we were all honest and serving in a pleasant attitude, but in a self-sacrificial way in that we were dedicated to what we were doing. We were idealistic, maybe to a fault. Some have said pious and so forth to a fault. But the fact that we were distrusted was revealed in the Bert Lance episode. I think it was an attitude of the press, maybe in the aftermath of Watergate and so forth, and because I was an alien in Washington, it was inevitable.


Problems with Congress during transition and the first year:

I don’t think it was a source of concern that I recall. Obviously, we had seen the problems that [Richard] Nixon and Ford had had with Congress, but it was a Democratic Congress. I expected when I went into the White House to have a much more harmonious relationship with the Democratic Congress than did occur. There’s no question about that. The basic agenda that we presented to the Congress at that time was carried out. It was supported and evolved between me, Bob Byrd, Tip O’Neill and the other Democratic leaders. There was a similar economic circumstance then to what we have now: high unemployment, a long period of stable oil prices, the inflation rate being fairly low, extraordinary deficits for those times—sixty-six billion dollars, I think, was Ford’s last deficit that I inherited—and the main program that we had was to stimulate the economy and to create jobs. There was no incompatibility between me and the Democratic leaders on those basic issues.


  1. 1. Ralph K. Huitt, “The Outsider Role in the Senate,” in Huitt and Robert L. Peabody, eds. Congress: Two Decades of Analysis (New York: Harper & Row, 1969): 107.