Saturday, November 12, 2011

"Power Failure": The Presidency of Jimmy Carter

I am coauthor of an updated version of the college American history textbook, currently titled “American Dreams and Reality: A Retelling of the American Story.” Here, I describe the conflicts President Jimmy Carter had with Democrats in Congress, the high cost of energy in the late 1970s and Carter's inconsistent stand on human rights around the world.

Crippled with a weakened economy, high energy costs, and the unexpected rise of a militant anti-American regime in Iran, newly elected President Jimmy Carter faced immense challenges to his leadership throughout his term. The Congress was filled with reformers eager to roll back presidential power after the abuses of the Nixon administration. Carter was also philosophically at odds with many members of his own party.

“He didn’t fit neatly into the existing wings of the party,” said Carter’s chief domestic policy advisor, Stuart Eizenstat. “He was neither a typical southern conservative nor a Kennedy liberal.” This odd position between the wings of the party often left him with few allies, a situation made worse with his personality. “It wouldn’t be altogether fair to say that Carter lacked political skill,” one observer of the administration said. “He had no coalition that wanted to go where he wanted to go.”

He often seemed stubborn to Congressional leaders, made little attempt to form personal relationships with important senators and congressmen and often seemed self-righteous, openly threatening recalcitrant legislators that if they stood in his way he could, as president, appeal over their heads to their constituents. He despised as corrupt the ordinary horse-trading involved in getting legislation passed. “Every time I see Carter, he makes me feel like a political whore,” said Jim Wright, a congressman from Fort Worth, Texas, who would later become Speaker of the House. Carter also hated delegating authority and stretched himself thin as he micromanaged his administration. Furthermore, he had trouble setting priorities, which limited his ability to lobby effectively for his most important initiatives.

Meanwhile, the economy was particularly vulnerable due to America’s continuing dependence on expensive foreign oil. Since the 1973 Yom Kippur War, the amount of oil used by Americans produced overseas climbed from about a third to more than half. The winter of 1976/77 was particularly harsh and because of a shortage of natural gas, schools and factories temporarily shut down, according to biographer Burton I. Kaufman, and by the end of January 1977, at least 400,000 workers in the North had been laid off for at least a day due to fuel shortages.

Carter directed his Secretary of Energy, Geral Ford’s former Defense Secretary James Schlesinger, to draft a comprehensive energy plan that aimed at reducing American dependence on Middle Eastern petroleum, expanded natural gas production, increased use of alternative energy sources such as nuclear energy and coal, and encouraged conservation. Carter and Schlesinger had not consulted Congress when the administration revealed its complicated 100-point plan, which raised the ire of both environmentalists (because of its support for increased coal and nuclear energy use) and the oil industry (because of its advocacy of federal gasoline taxes as a means of reducing consumption.) Congress rejected the plan and the United States again would suffer serious energy shortages in 1979 after a revolution in Iran.

The near meltdown of a nuclear reactor at Three Mile Island near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania on March 28, 1979 also thwarted Carter’s push for increased use of nuclear energy. A failure of a pump and valve caused one of the reactors to overheat, and clouds of radiation appeared in the skies. The area around Harrisburg was evacuated. Just before the accident, American audiences had seen the movie "The China Syndrome" in which a nuclear power plant experienced a similar malfunction. (The title refers to the theory that a nuclear meltdown in America would cause a chain reaction that would blow a radioactive hole in the Earth’s crust from the United States to China.)

The movie, the incident at Three Mile Island, and another incident July 16, 1979 when a dam burst near Church Rock, Mexico, and flooded uranium mines and filled the Rio Puerco River Valley with ninety million gallons of radioactive waste water, proved politically fatal to advocates of nuclear energy like Carter. As more nuclear power plants already approved for construction went on line, the amount of electricity provided by nuclear power doubled from 11 to 22 percent from 1979 to 1982. Yet, construction of new power plants, already controversial, faced far more fierce opposition and no new plants approved after 1974 ever became operational.


Like Nixon and Ford, Carter faced unusually high inflation yet had to combat unemployment at the same time. Inflation climbed from 5.2 percent when Carter first took office to 7 percent in 1978. Because of escalating energy costs, certain commodities rose in price more sharply. In 1978, for instance, meat prices shot up a stunning 18 percent. Economists have called the period “the Great Inflation.” When he first took office, Carter had proposed public works projects to reduce unemployment, but conservative opposition in the Congress stymied that. Carter then focused on trying to balance the budget. Carter also pushed for another conservative initiative, deregulation of trucking and the oil and gas industry. At the same time, he persuaded the Congress to increase spending on Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. His policies were a muddle, and many of the weaknesses in the American economy were beyond his ability to control.

In spite of the rising price of gasoline, American auto manufacturers in Detroit continued to build big gas guzzlers, driving consumers to buy imports. The American steel industry also began to collapse. Many steel plants, such as in Youngstown, Ohio, had not updated technology in decades while by the 1970s European and Japanese industry had completely recovered from World War II and were using cutting-edge machinery. Because of technological improvements, Japanese steel cost 15 to 20 percent less than American steel, allowing them to sell under the price of American steel. Tens of thousands of jobs in the American steel industry would disappear during the 1970s.


Carter’s foreign policy produced perhaps his greatest political triumph, a peace treaty between Egypt and Israel. It also produced his greatest defeat, the holding of American hostages by the radical Islamist regime in Iran for more than a year. Carter wanted his foreign policy to represent a clean break with what he saw as the callousness and amorality of the Nixon/Ford years. He wanted to move away from an era in which the United States would support brutal dictatorships in nations like Chile as long as those governments opposed communism. He declared that “human rights” would be the cornerstone of his foreign policy.

Carter criticized the Soviet Union’s treatment of political dissidents, which caused strain between the two countries. He spoke out against the mistreatment of political prisoners, the shutdown of opposition newspapers, and the lack of elections in countries ruled by tyrants in Latin America, Africa and Asia. As part of this effort, the Congress, with Carter’s support, cut off military and financial aid to the brutal and corrupt Nicaraguan dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza Debayle. A revolutionary group, who called themselves the Sandinistas, overthrew the 46-year-old Somoza regime in the summer of 1979. There were limits, however, to Carter’s insistence on human rights. He continued to back Shah Reza Pahlavi of Iran, because he was seen as a force of modernization and moderation in the Middle East, and Philippines dictator Ferdinand Marcos because that nation hosted important American military bases.

Carter outraged conservatives when he signed a treaty giving control of the Panama Canal Zone to Panama in the year 2000. The negotiations were a continuation of talks dating back to when Panamanians had staged anti-American protests outside the 10-mile-wide Canal Zone in 1964. Panamanians and others in Latin America saw the canal as a symbol of American bullying and imperialism. Carter and Canal Zone President Omar Torrijos signed two treaties in 1978, one guaranteeing the neutrality of the Canal Zone (meaning that use of the canal could not be blocked to international vessels for political reasons) and another that provided for joint U.S.-Panamanian control of the canal until December 31, 1999, when full control would pass to the government of Panama.

Already running for president, former California Gov. Ronald Reagan belittled Torrijos as a "tin-horned" dictator and proclaimed to cheering audiences, “We built it! We paid for it! It’s ours and we’re going to keep it!” The U.S. Senate ratified the treaties in March and April of 1978. The agreement greatly improved the United States’ relationship to Latin America. Reagan, however, would cite the treaty as a sign of American retreat and weakness under Carter, and the issue would help fire up the conservative base in the two years leading up to the 1980 presidential election.

Michael Phillips has authored the following:

White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2006)

(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)

“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)

“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ”  in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)

“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)

(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I.   (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama  (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013). 

“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).

He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.

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