There’s a long-standing tradition among conservative pols and gabbers to compare every Democratic president to Jimmy Carter. It’s hardly surprising: Carter was the first and last sitting Democratic president since the 19th century to lose a general election. His presidency, moreover, led to a sort of Republican golden age with the landslide election (and 49-state reelection) of Ronald Reagan and the first Republican-controlled Senate since the early 1950s. It was natural for many pundits to compare the southern governor Bill Clinton and the foreign-policy novice Barack Obama to the 39th president, and Republicans, of course, loved to point to signs (falsely) indicating that both these men would be one-term presidents.
The Jimmy Carter Redux game has returned with a vengeance in negative assessments of Joe Biden. For one thing, Biden was something of a contemporary (and supporter) of Carter’s; he was already in the Senate when the idea of a Carter presidency seemed like a preposterous long shot. For another, there is a rapidly emerging narrative on the right that some of the problems that sank Carter in 1980 are returning on Biden’s watch: inflation (combined with lagging economic growth), rising crime rates, feckless foreign-policy management, and a divided Democratic Party. So you are now routinely getting the kind of take Forbes reported back in May:
Trump, in a statement, joked that comparisons between Biden and Carter were “very unfair to Jimmy Carter,” claiming Carter “mishandled crisis after crisis” while “Biden has created crisis after crisis.”
“Joe Biden is the new Jimmy Carter,” Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) tweeted last week, blasting Biden for “rising gas prices,” while Donald Trump Jr. called Biden “Jimmy Carter 2.0,” pointing to the lackluster April jobs report and inflation spikes.
Actually, such comparisons are unfair both to Carter and to Biden, for different reasons. Let us count the ways in which their presidencies are strikingly dissimilar.
Today’s economic turbulence is nothing like the “stagflation” of the late 1970s
Yes, inflation has returned as an economic concern for the first time in decades. And it’s true that the U.S. economy has not entirely recovered from the devastating effects of a pandemic that Biden inherited. But c’mon: In 1979, the inflation rate was 13.3 percent, and the unemployment rate was 6 percent; in 1980, inflation was at 12.5 percent while unemployment spiked to 7.2 percent. The Federal Reserve Board’s estimate for inflation in 2021 is just over 4 percent, dropping to somewhere between 2 and 3 percent in 2022; the expected average unemployment rate is 4.5 percent, dropping to 3.8 percent in 2022. Meanwhile, the federal funds rate (the best comparable measure of interest rates) was at 11 percent in 1979 and leaped to an incredible 20 percent in 1980 as the Fed tried to kill inflation. Today’s federal funds rate is expected to stay under one percent until 2023.
Anyone who lived through the economic conditions of the late 1970s should laugh at the suggestion that we’re in the same spot today.
Democrats are way more united now than they were 40 years ago
Those who think there is some yawning ideological gap between Democratic moderates like Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema on the one hand and progressives like Bernie Sanders and Pramila Jayapal on the other really should look at the Democratic congressional caucuses of the Carter years. Hell, they could just look at the congressional delegation from Carter’s home state of Georgia. The two Democratic senators representing the state at the time were the ex-segregationist fiscal hawk Herman Talmadge and the self-described conservative Sam Nunn. Democratic House members from Georgia included the president of the John Birch Society, Larry McDonald, and solid right-of-center members Doug Barnard, Jack Brinkley, Billy Lee Evans, Charles Hatcher, and Ed Jenkins, all of whom were part of the coalition that enacted Reagan’s landmark budget in 1981. There were so many conservative Democrats in Congress then that Reagan didn’t need his party to have a majority in the House to enact his agenda.
The idea that today’s Democrats are anywhere near as disunited as the party was in the ’70s is ridiculous. The main problem they face today is simply razor-thin margins of control in both houses of Congress, which tempt individual members to make demands and take hostages.
Biden is more in command of his party than Carter ever was
Carter was a one-term governor who caught lightning in a bottle in 1976, winning the Democratic presidential nomination in a year when the Nixon scandals had created a national craving for an outsider president. He had the enormous benefit of combining support from southern Democrats wanting a president of their own and northern Democrats wanting someone to take down the very dangerous right-wing demagogue George Wallace (who had shown alarming strength in and beyond the South in the 1972 Democratic primaries).
By the time Carter took office, his outsider persona had become a serious handicap for him in Washington, a situation his prickly character and inexperienced staff did not help. And of course, when he ran for reelection in 1980, he had to overcome a primary challenge from the party’s great liberal icon Ted Kennedy.
The tensions between Biden’s White House and the progressive and centrist “wings” of his party (even that label greatly overstates any intraparty differences) are a walk in the park compared to what Carter had to deal with every day of his presidency.
Even these differences don’t completely capture why mocking Joe Biden for being “another Jimmy Carter” is misguided. Carter wasn’t “Jimmy Carter” either, in terms of the recent stereotype of him as the cause of his party’s many years of misery.
Carter was holding back a Republican avalanche
To understand Reagan’s two landslide presidential wins, you need to look further back than the Carter administration. The event that really exhibited 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 very likely have been reelected against any Democrat other than Carter, whose regional appeal gave his party a host of electoral votes from states they had been losing regularly and wouldn’t carry again until the 1990s (or ever, in some cases). Carter won 67 percent of the vote in Georgia and 56 percent in Alabama and South Carolina, states that had not gone for the Donkey Party since 1960. All told, he carried every state of the former Confederacy save Virginia; the southern-inflected border states of Kentucky, Maryland, Missouri, and West Virginia; and Ohio, almost certainly because of his strength in the Appalachian portions of that state.
It’s hard to grasp this now, but Carter’s coalition combined ex-segregationist white conservatives and Black voters in almost equal measure. He was endorsed in 1976 by both Martin Luther King Sr. and George Wallace. And he was the favorite of the white Evangelicals who would soon become a formidable constituency for the most conservative Republicans.
Carter retained some of this regional support in 1980 (he carried Georgia again and narrowly lost Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Tennessee), but the southern excitement over his landmark candidacy had ebbed. So when a non-southerner — Carter’s veep, Fritz Mondale — became the Democratic nominee in 1984, the bottom fell out of the regional Democratic vote, and Reagan got his real landslide.
This GOP triumph might have happened earlier had Carter not run for president in 1976. He didn’t cause it. And in any event, the rapidly shifting tectonic plates of politics in the Carter era bear little resemblance to the stable and polarized two-party system we have right now.
Enough about the 1970s already
Obviously, a lot has changed in the 41 years since Carter left the White House, and facile comparisons of then to now miss most of these important differences. Critics of Biden should stick to today’s circumstances. And critics of Carter should pay less attention to the “failures” they don’t seem to understand and perhaps more attention to Carter’s distinguished post-presidency.