Yeah, Biden is a bit like Jimmy Carter — but not for the reason right-wingers think

Carter's presidency was sunk by a failure to promote his own accomplishments — not because there weren't any

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published July 24, 2022 6:00AM (EDT)

Joe Biden and Jimmy Carter (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Joe Biden and Jimmy Carter (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

In a column published over the Fourth of July weekend I compared Joe Biden to America's founding fathers — in particular to George Washington and Thomas Jefferson — because they all supported ambitious economic policies that were not realized in their lifetimes. (Or that potentially, in Biden's case, will never be realized at all.) One reader responded by tweeting an image of actual feces at me, but other critics took a more measured approach: Writers at Fox News and the Daily Wire arguing that it was more appropriate to compare Biden to Jimmy Carter.

According to Fox News, Biden is like Carter "because of the economic similarities of high gas prices and inflation," while the Daily Wire quoted a tweet that claimed Biden was "the worst American president since Jimmy Carter, and possibly of all time."

There's something to these arguments, but not for the reason the Biden-haters think. The most important similarity between Carter and Biden is that each was a bland, moderate Democratic hope who was elected after a period of unprecedented Republican corruption — and who failed to stem the rising Republican tide. 

As I've written before, nostalgia for Barack Obama played a big role in Biden's nomination, and then Donald Trump's spectacular failure to respond to the COVID pandemic pretty much decided the election for Biden: He presented himself to a public that was largely fed up with the incumbent, and promised a return to the pre-Trump status quo of "normal" politics. Basically Biden was in the right place at the right time, and mainstream Democrats saw him as the only option to fend off first Bernie Sanders and then Trump.

Jimmy Carter's story was quite different. He ran a grassroots primary campaign in 1976 that pioneered many modern campaign tactics, and beat back more than a dozen other candidates, including mainstream Democrats like Sen. Henry "Scoop" Jackson and Sen. Frank Church and progressive favorites like Rep. Mo Udall of Arizona and Gov. Jerry Brown of California. Carter pioneered a new style of retail politics, one in which candidates campaigned hard on the ground, while studying the primary and caucus calendars carefully. Through this method, Carter managed to pull off an upset over both the mainstream and progressive preferences.

That approach became normal for both Democratic and Republican candidates in the following decades, but it was brand new in 1976, and Carter stunned the political universe. Hardly anyone outside the Deep South had ever heard of Carter, a one-term Georgia governor with a mixed record, at the time Richard Nixon resigned in August 1974. Two and a half years later, he was the president.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, Carter accomplished some impressive things. U.S. energy security today is the direct result of legislation he passed, according to Stuart Eizenstat, Carter's former domestic affairs adviser. In a 2018 interview with Salon, Eizenstat also ticked off Carter's achievements in passing landmark ethics legislation and doubling the size of the national park system. Carter had appointed more women and more Black people to senior positions and to the federal bench, Eizenstat said, "than all 38 presidents before him put together." In a distant pre-echo of the Biden presidency, Carter also endorsed the Federal Reserve's decision to raise interest rates to "choke the economy and squeeze out inflation," at great risk to his chances of re-election.

In foreign policy, Carter helped forge a historic peace deal between Israel and Egypt, one that has endured to this day and produced the immortal photograph of Carter beaming while Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin shook hands with Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. Concluding that America's colonial era belonged in the past, he negotiated a treaty that returned control of the Panama Canal to the Panamanian government. More broadly, he worked to reorient American foreign policy toward human rights, cutting back or ending support to Latin American despots, opposing white minority governments in South Africa and Rhodesia and speaking out against Soviet human rights violations and the invasion of Afghanistan.

Stuart Eizenstat: "This Southern president appointed more women and more African-Americans to judgeships and to senior positions than all 38 presidents before him put together."

Then there was the downside, which in Carter's case was abundant. His leadership skills were lackluster, he was not a charismatic or inspiring speaker, he tended to vacillate in decision-making and he struggled to retain the best staffers. It wasn't his fault that the military mission attempting to rescue U.S. hostages in Iran was a disastrous failure, but that failure stuck to him. Overall he appeared unequal to a series of major problems amounting to what he correctly identified as a "crisis of confidence." He was decisively defeated by Ronald Reagan in 1980, an election that proved to be a massive turning point in American history and politics.

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That's why Carter is widely regarded as a failure. He was elected by a nation thirsty for real leadership, and he left it in a more advanced state of dehydration. His good intentions don't seem to count for much against that legacy. But that doesn't mean Carter didn't accomplish important things as president — or that it wouldn't have been preferable if Americans had given him a second chance. Joe Biden is now risking a Carter repeat: Replacing a problem president in one election, and then creating an opening for another one.

Biden won the Democratic nomination mostly because of nostalgia for Barack Obama. After that, Trump's failure to respond to the pandemic effectively decided the election.

Nothing Richard Nixon ever did can hold a candle to Trump's carnival of political horrors, and it was quite a different time: Some Republicans were willing to turn against Nixon in the end, revealing an era when they hadn't yet decided to place the quest for power above all else. They too had not yet forfeited their soul.

Joe Biden has, at least arguably, reestablished the legitimacy of government simply by not being Donald Trump — and no matter what Republicans may claim about his son's laptop, Biden has avoided major scandals as well. 

Biden's achievements on the COVID pandemic and the climate crisis, although modest in scale and hamstrung by implacable Republican opposition, go beyond simply a return to "normal." His mass vaccination program has saved thousands of lives, he brought the U.S. back into the Paris Climate Agreement and he has worked to reform both environmental regulation and immigration policy. His infrastructure bill, which will create new jobs and strengthen communities across the country, may well be his most lasting achievement.

Carter forged a lasting peace deal between Israel and Egypt, and presided over one of the most famous handshakes in recent history.

Like Carter, Biden is hardly a dynamic public speaker. Like Carter, he has presided over a major foreign policy disaster. (In Biden's case, it was the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, so it's at least mildly ironic that Jimmy Carter so vigorously protested the Soviet invasion more than 40 years earlier.) Like Carter, Biden has seen many of his domestic policy initiatives go nowhere.

Joe Biden's last, best hope for political redemption may be the potential prosecution of Donald Trump for his actions before and during the Jan. 6 insurrection. If Attorney General Merrick Garland is reluctant, for whatever reason, to pursue the prosecution of a former president, the Democrats not only face likely defeat in the 2022 midterms, but still worse to follow.

America took a hard right turn after Carter's defeat, and may do so again if Biden (or another hypothetical Democrat) loses to Donald Trump (or another hypothetical Republican) in 2024, especially in the wake of an evident coup attempt going effectively unpunished and the planet continuing to warm to catastrophic levels without Republican policies to address it. In that scenario, there could be reasons to feel concerned not just about the future of democracy, but the future of the planet.

By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

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Deep Dive Donald Trump History Jimmy Carter Joe Biden Richard Nixon