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President Jimmy Carter didn't exactly hit the lottery when it came to timing. During the course of his presidency, the country experienced inflation, an energy crisis, Soviet aggression in Afghanistan, and a hostage crisis in Iran.
And like a first-time gym goer at the pull-up bar, his administration had a hard time keeping its chin up.
He was voted out of office after only one term, in part because of a perceived-gloominess about him. But was he being gloomy, or just honest? And why was he being so honest anyway? To answer these questions, we need to know more about the man behind the presidency.
James Earl Carter, Jr. was born on October 1st, 1924 to James Earl Carter, Sr. and Lillian Gordon-Carter. Born in Plains, Georgia, his mother was a nurse who crossed segregated lines to treat African American patients. His father was a hard-working peanut farmer who worked his own hands a small plot of land that he owned himself.
Because of these experiences, Carter grew up valuing honesty, religion, hard work and civil rights. (Go, Carter!)
After a stint in the navy, Carter came back home to Georgia after his father passed to take over the family peanut farm. There he developed an interest in politics. By 1970, he was campaigning for governor of Georgia. To win, though, he had to court the segregationist vote. Despite these appearances, Carter's term as governor was noted for its contributions to civil rights. In his inaugural address, he called for an end to segregation. He increased the number of African American staff members in Georgia's government by 25%. (Source)
When it came to equal rights, Jimmy Carter was, at heart, a mama's boy, proving once and for all that yes, mama does know best…
Carter campaigned for the 1976 election as a political outsider. And like America seeing Simon Cowell before American Idol, hardly anyone knew who he was or what he was doing. That wasn't such a bad thing, however.
Remember the political climate. We're only a few years removed from the Watergate Scandal (check out our Historical Timeline). We as Americans were fed up with politics as usual, fed up with the system, and fed up with being fed up with the same old politics as usual system. That's exactly who we were looking for, an outsider. And after Carter's narrow victory over Gerald Ford in 1976, that's exactly what America got.
But like that old saying goes, be careful what you wish for. Just four years later, America would sour on their outsider candidate. The question, though, is why? Let's review those previously mentioned incidents—the Oil Shock, Soviet Aggression and the Iranian Hostage Crisis—to better understand that "hard-knock" presidency we spoke of earlier.
We've mentioned before that Carter was a farmer. He learned the value of hard work early on in life, and expected the same from others. In fact, he was bound and determined to be the everyman president, the Rudy Ruettiger of the White House. He even walked the whole inauguration ceremony instead of cruising in the more stylish limousine like his predecessors. Instead of a spiffy tux, he wore a plain suit.
He even wore cardigans, like a page right out of Mr. Rogers' playbook.
But Washington, D.C. has its own culture and its own set of rules. If you've ever been the new kid at school walking into the cafeteria for the first time, you know the feeling. Let's just say that cardigans aren't exactly a big part of D.C. culture. So Carter had some bona fide issues in dealing with Congress.
Let's talk about pork. No, not the kind on your dinner plate, we're talking about political pork, or the extra earmarks that get tucked into otherwise non-related legislation. It's a way of getting support for your bill, the political equivalent of you scratch my back and I'll scratch yours.
Carter, though, wanted to scrap all that pork. He saw it as wasteful, and in many cases he was right. However, that's the culture of politics. That's how a president negotiates with Congress. So when this downhome farmer from Georgia (who was a political outsider, remember) ran up against Congress for the first time, it ruffled some feathers, with some serious political consequences.
It started when Congress vetoed one of Carter's bills, a consumer protection act. Carter responded by shooting down a public works package in 1978. The feud was on. Although Carter did manage to pass some serious legislative wins, especially in the field of energy, his relationship with Congress was never an easy one, a situation that put him in a very delicate position.
The oil shock of 1978 would be the first of two major events to unseat Carter's delicate hold on the White House.
Beginning before Carter's administration in early 1970s, the U.S. had begun importing more and more oil. By 1976, the year Carter was elected, the U.S. was consuming one fourth of all the oil that OPEC was exporting. (Source)
America, sufficed to say, was feeling pretty gassy. So when OPEC raised the price of oil in 1978, it hit America particularly hard. How America reacted to this event, and in turn how Carter reacted to it, form the intersection of this "Crisis of Confidence" speech. It also serves as one of the two main reasons why he did not win reelection in 1980.
As outlined in the "Crisis of Confidence" speech, Carter viewed the oil crisis not as the problem itself but rather as the symptom of something larger. It stems from his roots, his belief in hard work, and his commitment to sacrifice.
He saw America's dependence on foreign oil the same way a nutritionist might view a fast food chain: as an unhealthy indulgence, as a failing to do the right thing and eat healthy or, in this case, use less and invest more in domestic energy.
This is perhaps best evidenced by the frustration Carter lets out in his "Crisis of Confidence" speech, such as when he says:
In a nation that was proud of hard work, strong families, close-knit communities, and our faith in God, too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption. (31)
The self-indulgence he describes refers to Americans' willingness to do what was cheap and quick, that is export foreign oil.
In turn, he fully expected America to respond to the crisis as a wake-up call, to view long gas lines and high unemployment in the same way that the captain of a ship might view approaching storm clouds, as a warning, as a sign to change course. He calls for this change in the speech when he says:
We simply must have faith in each other, faith in our ability to govern ourselves, and faith in the future of this Nation. Restoring that faith and that confidence to America is now the most important task we face. It is a true challenge of this generation of Americans. (38)
He expected that change of course to come in the form of changed behavior. He called on Americans to rethink how they view conservation and sacrifice. He said that:
[…] we often think of conservation only in terms of sacrifice. In fact, it is the most painless and immediate way of rebuilding our Nation's strength. Every gallon of oil each one of us saves is a new form of production. It gives us more freedom, more confidence, that much more control over our own lives. (53)
That was his pitch: shape up.
And America, it appears, was not on the same page. They didn't view the problem on a moral level. They viewed it from a dollar-and-cents level. To those waiting in the lines, it felt like the President was blaming them, their lifestyle, and their unwillingness to sacrifice as the cause for all this hardship.
As anyone who's struggling can attest, the last thing you would want to hear at that moment is anything remotely sounding like blame.
So let's recap: Carter is struggling to work with Congress and struggling to connect with the American people.
In fact, he went as far as to isolate the American people with his "Crisis of Confidence" speech, so poorly received was it that it eventually was referred to as the "Malaise" speech. Then, the cherry on top of Carter's woes was the Iranian hostage crisis.
After decades of mounting turmoil erupted in the 1979 overthrow of the U.S.-backed Shah, the new religious government took over sixty U.S. citizens prisoner. And after failing to quickly secure their release, the American people, already weary of a President they felt was judging them, began to see Carter as more and more the person unable to solve the nation's problems, which weren't about character or morals but about unemployment and inflation.
After losing his reelection bid to Ronald Reagan in 1980, it is tempting to view Carter's presidency—indeed his legacy as a whole—as something of a failure. But to do so would ignore his many successes, both during and after his presidency.
Here's a list of some of his major accomplishments:
So there you have it, folks: the bio of the man who's either chalked up as the biggest Debbie Downer since Eeyore, or a dude with a strong sense of morality who just didn't have the political sense to cheer up the American people when they needed cheering up…and who definitely didn't have the sense to shed his cardigans for a presidential-looking power suit.