What Historians Think of Joe Biden-Jimmy Carter Comparisons
Youn the lead-up to the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA)—a law securing the biggest climate investment in U.S. history and leading to lower prescription drug costs for seniors, which President Joe Biden is set to sign this week—one particular comparison point loomed large over Biden’s economic agenda: President Jimmy Carter.
His predecessor has been mocked by conservative news media outlets for months. Arkansas Republican senator Tom Cotton quipped on Twitter on July 28 that “Jimmy Carter has a defamation case against anyone comparing him to Joe Biden.” In a recent FOX News op-ed, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich wrote that voters “need to reject the policy failures of Presidents Jimmy Carter and Joe Biden.” Nor were the connections coming only from across the aisle: In January, Vice President Kamala Harris drew comparisons to Carter when she spoke of “a level of malaise” in a PBS News Hour interview, echoing the former President’s so-called “malaise” speech from July 1979.
For Republicans, the references are shorthand for a failed presidency, but many historians have argued that in fact, the Carter comparisons aren’t necessarily the insult they’re intended to be. For years, the Carter Administration has been dogged by a reputation for ineffectiveness, but a recent wave of reconsideration posits that this notoriety is far from deserved, and that Carter was more successful than he got credit for at the time—and, to some political observers, the passage of the IRA shows that Biden can’t be seen as ineffective either.
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The fact that the presidencies have drawn parallels is probably not surprising. Americans were distrustful of both the Reagan and Carter administrations. In a July 23, 1979, cover story headlined “At the Crossroads,” TIME described Carter as “surprisingly candid about his perception of the national mood,” which he summed up as “a ‘malaise’ of confusion, pessimism and distrust that had roots much deeper than gasoline lines or double-digit inflation.” In 2022, surveys likewise found that the majority of Americans are “dissatisfied” with the national situation.
Carter mentioned two other factors that are making a difference now. The 1970s saw the United States be preoccupied by inflation, which reached its highest point in 40 years this spring. “People are drawing comparisons because, in many ways, the trigger for inflation is much the same—having to do with oil and energy,” says Meg Jacobs, author of The Pump Panic! The 1970s energy crisis. Both during the Carter Administration and today, oil scarcity and shocks were caused by geopolitical unrest and geopolitical conflict.
As Stuart Eizenstat, Carter’s Chief White House Domestic Policy Advisor, joked about what it was like to go to work back then, “I had to wait 30 minutes in line [for gas] to get to the White House to deal with the problem of the gas lines.” Amid discussions about whether the U.S. is currently facing stagflation (high inflation and slow economic growth), Eizenstat describes dealing with stagflation in the Carter years as “like having salt poured in a wound every single day…We tried to get OPEC to increase production and make up for the shortfall, not unlike President [Biden’s] trip to Saudi Arabia.”
However, the COVID-19 pandemic differentiates today’s inflation from the inflation Carter faced, which can be traced to 1960s macroeconomic factors “roiling” the U.S. economy, says Gregory Brew, a historian of oil and a postdoctoral fellow at the Jackson School of Global Affairs at Yale University.
“The inflation that Biden is dealing with is very different than the inflation and economic problems that Carter is dealing with,” says Brew. “Carter came into office with inflation already on the agenda. This was a problem that had existed since the 1970s. Our current inflation problem caught pretty much everybody by surprise when it started to appear in late 2021…Biden’s burst of inflation, by comparison, stems from the post-COVID recovery and shocks to the energy and food markets since the Russian attack on Ukraine.”
Both Brew and Jacobs point out that climate change is factoring into these policy decisions today in a way that it wasn’t during the Carter administration.
“Climate change wasn’t on the agenda the way that it is today, so that’s another huge issue that really has no parallel in the Carter era,” says Brew.
While climate change may be seen today as an urgent problem, Carter encouraged the discussion about alternate energies. Carter established the Department of Energy. A bill was passed which increased energy investments and eliminated domestic oil price control.
“So the question is, is this going to be the moment, unlike the 1970s, where we really see a pivot towards more sustainable clean energy?” says Jacobs. She sees the IRA as “completing what Carter started,” citing Carter installing solar panels on the White House roof and vowing that the U.S. would get 20% of its energy from solar and other alternative energy sources by the year 2000.
Continue reading: Jimmy Carter, former President
Kai Bird is the author The Outlier: Jimmy Carter’s unfinished presidency argues that another similarity between the two presidents is a difficulty getting their messages across: “Both men are not very good at communicating in front of the TV camera—Biden, partly because of his age, but also because of his verbosity and his tendency to think off the cuff. And Carter just was never good in front of the television camera, so there’s another similarity there.”
But the main Biden-Carter comparisons that Bird has noticed are rooted in what he says is an incorrect argument that Carter didn’t accomplish much. Bird asserts that Carter actually played an important role in deregulating airlines, trucks, and alcohol, as well negotiating SALT II arms control agreements, Panama Canal Treaty and peace treaty between Israel & Egypt.
“When people say, ‘Oh, Biden is like the ineffective, hapless Jimmy Carter,’ they got it all wrong,” Bird says. “He was quite effective, and the perception of him as being weak is way off the mark. He was actually a very determined, stubborn, principled politician who is extremely hard working… I would argue Carter is not only the most decent politician to have occupied the White House in the 20th century, [but] without a doubt, the smartest, most intelligent, best-read president we’ve had.”
Carter supporters also rate Biden highly. “The Biden Administration seems to be moving along very well,” Gerald Rafshoon, Carter’s White House communications director, says. “He has good people” working for him. Bird points out that Carter enjoyed large Democratic majorities in the House and Senate, and thinks Biden has been “pretty effective,” despite razor-thin majorities in both chambers of Congress. That said, Carter had an easier time than Biden getting judicial nominees confirmed in the Senate and by this point in his presidency had “remade the federal bench,” boasting the confirmations of several African American, female, and Hispanic federal district court nominees.
But whether the comparison holds into the next election cycle may ultimately determine whether Biden is able to remain “pretty effective.”
“Everyone’s making the comparison [between Carter and Biden], both because of the levels of inflation, which we haven’t seen since the Carter period, and because of the political ramifications of that inflation,” Jacobs says. “And it’s not unreasonable to think that the situation will play out as it did for Jimmy Carter, meaning that there will be political fallout from high levels of inflation for Biden, as there were for Jimmy Carter.”
As Eizenstat recalls, ahead of the 1978 midterm elections, “Carter’s polls were plunging in part because he couldn’t get his energy package through after 18 months of negotiations with an even more heavily Democratic Congress.” Carter eventually triumphed, helping to negotiate an agreement that got Congress past a “bitter dispute” about how natural gas should be regulated. But, while the Democrats did retain control of Congress in the 1978 midterm elections—perhaps a bright sign for today’s Democrats in the wake of the IRA’s passage—Carter lost the 1980 presidential election to Ronald Reagan. Paul Volcker was the Federal Reserve Chairman in 1980 and 1979. The U.S. went into deep depression after interest rates rose to 20%.
Rafshoon insists that it was not domestic matters that caused the loss, but foreign policy. “The main reason we lost was because we were faced with the [Iran] hostage crisis,” Rafshoon argues. The political ramifications of the IRA and modern inflation, he says, can’t be judged until closer to Election Day in 2024.
But the Carter White House may still hold a lesson for the Biden White House, Eizenstat says: “Keep moving forward. Maintain your head high. Don’t show any strain. Keep your optimism.”
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