Jimmy Carter's Presidency
Jimmy Carter was a new face on the American political horizon. Rising from relative obscurity to the Presidency during a two-year campaign characterized by its hard work and attention to detail, Jimmy Carter excited a large portion of the electorate. Carter seemed to appeal to those outside of the mainstream of American politics, asking them in countless speeches and gatherings, to send an "outsider" to Washington.
Carter's religious beliefs also struck a responsive chord in large numbers of Americans. Other American leaders have felt deep religious convictions, but none had ever before been so successful in integrating those beliefs into a political program. This moral approach was refreshing to many, although others tended to distrust a politician who claimed he would "never tell a lie."
President Carter's first year brought him face to face with the everyday realities of American politics. On the plus side, Congress enacted, with some changes, the Administration's revision of the Social Security system, increasing both the wage base and rate of taxation, in an effort to generate the revenue needed to continue the program. On the other hand, he sent a comprehensive energy program to Congress, hoping for prompt approval, but instead it became the subject of a continuing congressional debate. But before his second year was over he could count among his important successes a bill to deregulate natural gas, a part of his original energy package, and a measure to help him reorganize the Federal Civil Service.
Although the U.S. economy continued to improve, the growth rate appeared to be stuck at around five percent of GNP and unemployment continued to nag. Inflation, a stubborn problem over the past 10 years, worsened. Carter initiated a comprehensive anti-inflation program, placing heavy emphasis on voluntary cooperation between government, business and labor to restrict price and wage rises. In another move to strengthen the U.S. dollar, the Carter Administration set up a $30,000 million coordinated market intervention facility in cooperation with three other countries. He urged expansion of U.S. exports and congressional approval of the Multilateral Trade Negotiations.
In his foreign policy, Mr. Carter stunned many diplomats by announcing that United States relations with other nations would be based on a concern for the rights of humans -the Carter "human rights" doctrine. The policy brought charges of interference in internal affairs of other nations from some governments, but was well received by the majority of world leaders.
He could count among his victories the ratification of the Panama Canal Treaty which guarantees the neutrality of the Canal after the year 2000. The ten-mile strip across the isthmus which contains the Canal had been administered by the United States. Some Americans accused the Administration of attempting to "give away" a valuable resource. The Administration's position was that the Canal was a resource of Panama which would guarantee American interests in its operation. After one of the most intensive lobbying efforts undertaken by the White House, the President won the necessary approval of the Senate and the historic treaty documents were signed.
January 1, 1979, marked a new era in Chinese-American relations. The first steps towards normalization which had begun with Richard Nixon's trip to Beijing in 1972 culminated almost seven years later in full diplomatic relations between the United States and the People's Republic of China. At the same time the United States cut formal ties with the Nationalist Chinese regime In Taiwan.
Carter's tireless effort to help cement a permanent peace in the Middle East resulted in the signing of a Peace Treaty between Egypt and Israel on March 26, 1979. It promised to end the cycle of Mideast wars and committed the two nations to negotiate the troubling question of a homeland for the Palestinians.
The Middle East breakthrough was Carter's most ambitious foreign policy achievement. In a rare effort of personal diplomacy, he initiated the negotiations between Egypt's Anwar Sadat and Israel's Menachem Begin, first at Camp David, the Presidential mountain retreat, and then he rescued the deteriorating peace talks in personal visits to both countries.
In 1980, the last year of his Administration, President Carter suffered serious setbacks in the area of foreign policy. His negotiators had culminated seven years of strategic arms limitations talks with the Soviet Union when he and the Soviet chairman signed the SALT II treaty. Under the U.S. Constitution, the treaty required ratification by two-thirds of the Senate. Many members of the Senate expressed reservations about the treaty, questioning if it would protect American security interests. When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in early 1980, President Carter asked the Senate not to consider the treaty further.
Militants in Iran seized the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in November 1979 and took some 60 Americans as hostages. Unable to persuade Iran to release them, President Carter ordered a military rescue mission, which failed, resulting in the deaths of eight American servicemen when their aircraft collided in the Iranian desert. Carter's failure to secure the hostages' freedom, after a year's captivity, was considered by political scientists a factor in his defeat in the 1980 presidential elections.
President Carter also grappled with serious domestic problems, primarily the economy and energy. Rising oil and food prices, a slowdown in the economy, and double digit inflation which approached 14 percent in 1979 and climbed over 20 percent in 1980, plagued all Americans. It was the worst inflation rate in recent decades. Compounding his domestic difficulties was a high unemployment rate: in 1979 it fluctuated between 5.6 and 6.0 percent of the civilian work force, but in some cities the rate was much higher. In Detroit, for example, the auto industry because of low car sales, ordered widespread layoffs and the city's unemployment rate soared to 18 percent.
In the presidential election of 1980, American voters rejected Mr. Carter's bid for a second term, and many expressed dissatisfaction with his handling of foreign and domestic problems. On November 4, 1980, election day, they selected a new President: Ronald Reagan, a conservative Republican and former two-term governor of California. He won 44 states and 51 percent of the popular vote. He swept the electoral votes, winning 489 to Carter's 49. In the wake of his election, the Republican Party gained more than 30 seats in the House of Representatives and gained a majority in the Senate for the first time in 26 years.