Joe Biden isn’t Jimmy Carter, and it’s not the 1970s


The 39th and 46th Presidents of the United States at the time.
Photo: Barry Thumma / AP / Shutterstock / Barry Thumma / AP / Shutterstock

There is a long-standing tradition among conservative politicians and marketers of comparing every Democratic president to Jimmy Carter. It’s no surprise: Carter was the first and last sitting Democratic president since the 19th century to lose a general election. His presidency also led to a sort of Republican golden age with the overwhelming election (and re-election of 49 states) of Ronald Reagan and the first Republican-controlled Senate since the early 1950s. It was natural for many pundits to compare Southern Governor Bill Clinton and foreign policy novice Barack Obama to the 39th President, and Republicans, of course, liked to show (falsely) signs that these two would be on term. presidents.

The Jimmy Carter Redux game came back strong in Joe Biden’s negative reviews. On the one hand, Biden was somewhat of a contemporary (and supporter) of Carter; he was already in the Senate when the idea of ​​a Carter presidency seemed like a long absurd plan. On the other hand, there is a rapidly emerging narrative on the right that some of the issues that sank Carter in 1980 are coming back under Biden’s watch: inflation (combined with lagging economic growth), crime rates. on the rise, reckless management of foreign policy and a split Democratic Party. So you now consistently get the kind of catch Forbes reported in May:

Trump, in a statement, joked that the comparisons between Biden and Carter were “very unfair to Jimmy Carter”, saying Carter “mismanaged crisis after crisis” while “Biden created crisis after crisis.”

“Joe Biden is the new Jimmy Carter”, representing Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) tweeted last week, blaming Biden for “rising gas prices,” while Donald Trump Jr. called Biden “Jimmy Carter 2.0,” pointing to April’s lackluster employment report and spikes in inflation.

In fact, such comparisons are unfair to both Carter and Biden, for various reasons. Let’s count the ways in which their presidencies are surprisingly dissimilar.

Yes, inflation has become an economic concern again for the first time in decades. And it is true that the US economy has not fully recovered from the devastating effects of a pandemic that Biden inherited. But come on: in 1979 the inflation rate was 13.3% and the unemployment rate 6%; in 1980 inflation was 12.5% ​​while unemployment reached 7.2%. The Federal Reserve’s estimate for inflation in 2021 is just over 4%, falling somewhere between 2-3% in 2022; the expected average unemployment rate is 4.5%, falling to 3.8% in 2022. Meanwhile, the federal funds rate (the best comparable measure of interest rates) was 11% in 1979 and has jumped to an astounding 20% ​​in 1980 as the Fed tried to kill inflation. Today’s fed funds rate is expected to stay below 1% until 2023.

Anyone who experienced the economic conditions of the late 1970s should scoff at the idea that we are in one place today.

Those who think there is a yawning ideological divide between moderate Democrats like Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema on the one hand and progressives like Bernie Sanders and Pramila Jayapal on the other should really look at the Congressional Democratic caucuses of the Carter years. Damn, they might just be looking at the Congressional delegation from Carter’s home state of Georgia. The two Democratic senators representing the state at the time were segregationist ex-fiscal hawk Herman Talmadge and self-proclaimed conservative Sam Nunn. Members of the Georgia Democratic House included John Birch Society President Larry McDonald and strong center-right members Doug Barnard, Jack Brinkley, Billy Lee Evans, Charles Hatcher and Ed Jenkins, all of whom were in the coalition. who enacted Reagan’s historic budget in 1981. There were so many conservative Democrats in Congress then that Reagan did not need his party to have a majority in the House to pass his platform.

The idea that today’s Democrats are as disunited as the party was in the 1970s is ludicrous. The main problem they face today is simply very thin margins of control in both houses of Congress, which prompts individual members to make demands and take hostages.

Carter was a one-term governor that caught the thunderbolt in a bottle in 1976, winning the Democratic presidential nomination in a year when the Nixon scandals created national envy for a foreign president. He had the huge advantage of combining the support of the Southern Democrats who wanted a president of their own and the Northern Democrats who wanted someone to take down the very dangerous right-wing demagogue George Wallace (who had shown strength alarming in and beyond the South during the Democratic primaries of 1972).

By the time Carter took office, his character as an outsider had become a serious handicap to him in Washington, a situation his thorny character and inexperienced staff did not help. And of course, when he ran for re-election in 1980, he had to overcome a major challenge from the great liberal icon of the party, Ted Kennedy.

The tensions between Biden’s White House and his party’s progressive, centrist “wings” (even this label greatly exaggerates the differences within the party) are a walk in the park compared to what Carter has had to face each and every time. day of his presidency.

Even these differences don’t fully capture why mocking Joe Biden for being “another Jimmy Carter” is wrong. Carter was also not “Jimmy Carter,” in terms of the recent stereotype of him as the cause of his party’s many years of misery.

To understand Reagan’s two crushing presidential victories, you have to look beyond the Carter administration. The event that really showed the regional and ideological realignment behind Republicans’ success in the 1980s was the 1972 presidential election, in which Nixon won 49 states against Democrat George McGovern. The Watergate scandal and Nixon’s subsequent disgrace and resignation gave Democrats a brief respite, but Nixon’s successor Gerald Ford would most likely have been re-elected against any Democrat other than Carter, whose regional appeal gave to his party had a slew of state electoral votes that they regularly lost and wouldn’t carry until the 1990s (or never, in some cases). Carter won 67% of the vote in Georgia and 56% in Alabama and South Carolina, states that had not opted for the Donkey Party since 1960. All in all, he won all the states of the former Confederation. , except Virginia; the border states south of Kentucky, Maryland, Missouri and West Virginia; and Ohio, almost certainly because of its strength in the Appalachian parts of that state.

It’s hard to grasp now, but Carter’s coalition combined ex-segregationist white conservatives and black voters in almost equal measure. It was approved in 1976 by Martin Luther King Sr. and George Wallace. And he was the favorite of white evangelicals who would soon become a formidable constituency for the most conservative Republicans.

Carter retained some of that regional support in 1980 (he transported Georgia again and narrowly lost Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Tennessee), but southern enthusiasm for his historic candidacy had faded. So when a non-southerner – Carter’s veep, Fritz Mondale – became the Democratic nominee in 1984, the bottom fell from the regional Democratic vote, and Reagan got his real landslide.

This GOP triumph could have happened sooner if Carter hadn’t run for President in 1976. He didn’t cause it. And in any case, the rapidly evolving tectonic plates of politics in the Carter era bear little resemblance to the stable, polarized two-party system we have today.

Clearly, a lot has changed in the 41 years since Carter left the White House, and easy comparisons then miss most of these important differences. Critics of Biden should stick to today’s circumstances. And Carter’s critics should pay less attention to “failures” that they don’t seem to understand and perhaps more attention to Carter’s distinguished post-presidency.

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