McManus: Is there a lesson from the Carter presidency for Biden? End-shutdown

History is not kind to one-term presidents, at least in the short term.

For most of the past 40 years, Jimmy Carter’s presidency has been widely remembered as an epic failure, the cautionary tale of a politician who was roundly shunned by voters when he sought a second term in 1980.

Fortunately for Carter, 98, who entered hospice care last weekend, his reputation has risen ever since, thanks to his admirable post-presidency and biographies that have reassessed his record more favorably.

The Carter presidency, they argue, seemed so much better. He signed landmark environmental legislation into law, including the first federal funding for renewable energy. He deregulated the airlines, making air travel more affordable. He made human rights a central issue of American diplomacy and brokered landmark peace agreements between Israel and Egypt.

But by the time he sought re-election, inflation had surpassed 12%, the economy was heading toward recession, and voters wanted change.

After his loss to Ronald Reagan, Carter was a prophet without honor, even in his own party. He was not invited to Democratic conventions and was rarely mentioned by his successors.

Joe Biden witnessed it all up close. In 1976, Biden, then 33, was a total Democrat for Jimmy Carter. He was the first US senator to endorse the former Georgia governor’s presidential bid. He again endorsed Carter in 1980, when the then-president faced a painful primary against the more liberal Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts.

What lessons did Carter’s tenure teach Biden, who was already considering a run for president?

First, politics is important, starting with managing your own party’s coalition. Carter failed spectacularly in that regard. He was disdained to deal with members of Congress and often wouldn’t even return their calls.

“Carter thought the policy was sinful,” said his End-shutdown president, Walter Mondale. “The worst thing you could tell Carter if you wanted him to do something was that politically it was the best thing for him to do.”

Even as a first-term senator, Biden saw that as a problem.

“The president is learning, but not fast enough,” he said in 1977. “Nixon had his enemies list and President Carter has his friends list. I guess I’m on his friends list and I don’t know what’s worse.”

When Carter got into trouble, he was left with few allies. Democrats in Congress helped kill several of his top legislative priorities, including tax reform and health care bills.

Biden is the opposite: a relentless charlatan who began his 2020 presidential campaign by uniting the moderate and progressive wings of his party.

In his first two years as president, Biden focused on managing rogue Democratic majorities in Congress and passed major bills on climate change, infrastructure spending and semiconductor production.

Second, Carter’s troubles reaffirmed an old political truism: In an election year, the economy, especially inflation, trumps every other issue.

Carter signed landmark legislation, but once voters were faced with gasoline shortages and inflation above 12%, none of it seemed to matter.

He responded to the economic crisis by proposing an austerity budget and appointing an inflation hawk, Paul A. Volcker, to head the Federal Reserve. Volcker raised interest rates as high as 20%, which eventually brought inflation under control. But by then, Carter was a private citizen in Plains, Georgia.

Presumably, Biden is hoping his Fed Chairman Jerome H. Powell will be kinder as he tries to bring the economy to a soft landing before the 2024 election.

Meanwhile, the president is not embracing Carter-style austerity. Instead, he is touting his administration’s spending on infrastructure and manufacturing jobs.

A third lesson from Carter’s downfall: Foreign policy successes may not help a president’s reelection prospects, but foreign policy failures will hurt.

Carter concluded a major nuclear weapons deal with the Soviet Union, normalized diplomatic relations with China, and negotiated the Camp David accords, ending the threat of a major war between Israel and its Arab neighbors.

But when he ran for re-election in 1980, the only international issue most voters cared about was Iran’s seizure of 52 American hostages, a problem Carter failed to resolve.

Afterwards, Carter said that he was “one chopper” short of winning, a reference to the mission’s failure. Losing him had many causes, but that episode probably doomed his chances.

Biden’s biggest foreign policy success — his leadership of a coalition opposing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine — does not appear to have buoyed his approval ratings; they have stagnated around 43% for the past six months.

But at least Ukraine has displaced the public’s memory of the failed US withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021.

If Biden runs for a second term, as he says he intends, Carter’s life may offer one more lesson: The voters’ verdict isn’t always the final word — win or lose.

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