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October 9th, 2019

Ranking the Presidents: Jimmy Carter

On a scale of 1 to 10 (10 being best), how would you grade Jimmy Carter, based on the performance of his duties as President? You can go to this link to vote. After the shock of Watergate, Americans looked for a Washington outsider, with a scandal-free reputation, to sit in the oval office. They found such a candidate in the person of a born again Christian governor from a southern state who promised an open and accountable government named James Earl Carter. Carter's independence from the Washington gang sounded better in theory than in practice. An inability to work with Congress would hamper Carter's effectiveness as President as he tried to wrestle with high interest rates, a high rate of inflation, an energy crisis and one of the most famous hostage-taking events in history

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Jimmy Carter was born and raised in Plains, Georgia. He was the first President to be born in a hospital. Carter left the family farm to graduate from the United States Naval Academy in 1946. He graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree and joined the United States Navy, where he served on submarines. His father died in 1953, and Carter left his naval career and returned home to Georgia to take over the family's peanut farm. Although the Carter family was not wealthy, Carter was able to grow the business. It was during this period that Carter began his political career, in an era of racial segregation. Carter supported the growing civil rights movement and became an activist within the Democratic Party. In 1962 Carter was elected to the Georgia State Senate after challenging the initial results and winning in a recount. In 1970, he was elected as Governor of Georgia, defeating former Governor Carl Sanders in the Democratic primary on an anti-segregation platform advocating affirmative action for ethnic minorities. Carter remained as governor until 1975, when he decided to run for president. Carter was considered to be a dark-horse candidate who was unknown outside of Georgia at the start of the campaign. But in the first post-Watergate election, Carter won the 1976 Democratic presidential nomination. In the general election, Carter rose his outsider status and narrowly defeated incumbent Republican President Gerald Ford.

Carter promised a different style of presidency. On his second day in office, Carter pardoned all the Vietnam War draft evaders. He created two new cabinet-level departments, the Department of Energy and the Department of Education. He also established a national energy policy that included conservation, price control, and new technology. In foreign affairs, Carter pursued the Camp David Accords, the Panama Canal Treaties, the second round of Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT II), and the return of the Panama Canal Zone to Panama. Carter faced a difficult economy with persistent "stagflation", a combination of high inflation, high unemployment and slow economic growth.

Carter was hampered by a poor relationship with Congress. He was unwilling to trade political favors, something which led to his inability to pass legislation through Congress. During a press conference on February 23, 1977, Carter stated that it was "inevitable" that he would come into conflict with Congress. He became bitter after an unsuccessful attempt at having Congress enact the scrapping of several water projects he had requested during his first 100 days in office. A rift developed between the White House and Congress especially with the liberal wing of the Democratic Party. Carter blamed this on Ted Kennedy wanting the presidency. Carter issued a "hit list" of 19 projects that he claimed were "pork barrel" spending. Carter found himself at odds with Speaker of the House of Representatives Tip O'Neill and Carter ultimately ended up signing of bill that contained many of the "hit list" projects.

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The end of Carter's presidency was marked by even more problems, including the 1979–1981 Iran hostage crisis, the 1979 energy crisis, the Three Mile Island nuclear accident, and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. In response to the Soviet invasion, Carter escalated the Cold War by ending détente, imposing a grain embargo against the Soviets, and led an international boycott of the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow. In 1980, Carter faced a primary challenge from Senator Ted Kennedy, but he won re-nomination at the 1980 Democratic National Convention. But he had lost significant support and lost the general election in an electoral landslide to Republican nominee Ronald Reagan.

Carter left office unpopular, but regained popularity in retirement. In 1982, he established the Carter Center to promote and expand human rights. Carter traveled extensively to conduct peace negotiations, monitor elections, and advocate for disease prevention and eradication in developing nations. He became a key figure in the Habitat for Humanity charity. He was also a prolific author, writing over 30 books, ranging from memoirs, political treatises, poetry and inspirational books. He also has criticized some of Israel's actions and policies in regards to the Israeli–Palestinian conflict and has advocated for a two-state solution. Carter has been a vocal critic of subsequent Republican administrations, going so far as to launch an attack on President George W. Bush while speaking at the funeral of Coretta Scott King. In 2012, Carter surpassed Herbert Hoover as the longest-retired president in U.S. history, and in 2017 became the first president to live to the 40th anniversary of his inauguration. He is currently the oldest and earliest-serving of all living U.S. presidents. In 2019, Carter surpassed George H. W. Bush as the longest-lived American president in U.S. history. He celebrated his 95th birthday earlier this month and appears to be still going strong, despite recent battles with brain and liver cancer.

While many have high regard for Carter for his active retirement, polls of historians and political scientists have generally ranked Carter as a below-average president. A 2018 poll of the American Political Science Association's Presidents and Executive Politics section ranked Carter as the 26th best president and 2017 C-Span poll of historians also ranked Carter as the 26th best president. Comparisons have between made between Carter to Herbert Hoover, both seen as hardworking but ineffective and unable to confront the very challenging economic problems they faced.

Robert A. Strong of the Miller Center summed up the Carter Presidency in 2018 as follows: "Jimmy Carter is much more highly regarded today than when he lost his bid for reelection in 1980. He has produced an exemplary post-presidency, and today there is an increased appreciation for the enormity of the task he took on in 1977, if not for the measures he took to deal with the crises that he faced. Carter took office just thirty months after a President had left the entire federal government in a shambles. He faced epic challenges—the energy crisis, Soviet aggression, Iran, and above all, a deep mistrust of leadership by his citizens. He was hard working and conscientious. But he often seemed like a player out of position, a man more suited to be secretary of energy than president. Carter became President by narrowly defeating an uninspiring, unelected chief executive heir to the worst presidential scandal in history. The nomination was his largely because in the decade before 1976, Democratic leadership in the nation had been decimated by scandal, Vietnam, and an assassination."

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Other historians have observed how Carter entered the Presidency at a difficult time in history, in the immediate aftermath of Watergate, but ahead of an emerging conservative movement. It was also Carter's misfortune that he took over the presidency at a time of staggering inflation and growing unemployment, high interest rates, compounded by an oil crisis. But unlike great presidents like Lincoln and Roosevelt who confronted severe problems with stellar leadership, Carter's presidency is seen as a mediocre presidency. Many analysts see this as Carter being the author of his own misfortune. He was seen as someone who had good intentions but unskilled in getting results. He had lofty ideals, especially in the area of human rights, but he was blind to political realities. The four decades that have passed since the end of Carter's presidency have not altered this assessment.

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