Jimmy Carter as President: Election, Foreign Policy & Accomplishments

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  • 0:06 Rise of Carter
  • 0:41 Election of 1976
  • 1:26 Foreign Policy
  • 4:22 Domestic Agenda
  • 6:22 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Adam Richards

Adam has a master's degree in history.

President James 'Jimmy' Carter was elected president in 1976. Learn about the 39th President of the United States' foreign and domestic policies, including his successes and failures.

Rise of Carter

President James 'Jimmy' Carter began his journey to the White House as a prominent peanut farmer from Georgia. Carter eventually entered the political arena at the state level, working his way up to successfully running for governor of Georgia. Carter was a member of the Democratic Party, but his political leanings differed from that of his political peers. He was known to be more moderate on race-related issues and extremely conservative in foreign and fiscal policy. Carter regarded himself as a 'man of the people' and wanted a federal government that represented all Americans. This ethos was his focal point when he ran for President of the United States in 1976.

Election of 1976

The Presidential Election of 1976 witnessed incumbent Republican President Gerald Ford battle against Democratic candidate and up-and-comer Governor Carter. With the United States mired in a period of economic stagnation, Americans looked for an alternative to Ford. While Carter did not represent a significant upgrade, he did win significant support amongst African Americans for his liberal racial policy, as well as among young male Americans for his proposed amnesty program for those who dodged the Vietnam War draft. Even with the extra support, Carter narrowly defeated Ford by a margin of 297 to 241 in the electoral vote and less than two million popular votes. Notwithstanding, Carter became the first governor to successfully be elected as president since Franklin Roosevelt.

Foreign Policy

As a former governor, Carter obviously had very little experience with foreign relations. In fact, the few notable diplomatic achievements he orchestrated were often small and regionalized. To his credit, he was a sensational humanitarian and his emphasis on human rights was the keystone to his foreign policy even though it would take decades to achieve results.

Carter made it a personal goal to begin an international campaign to bring awareness toward human rights. He believed that communism had negatively impacted the lives of those living under an anti-democratic regime. Yet, an unforeseen issue arose due to the rhetoric of the Carter Administration. While Carter denounced a number of nations who either supported communism or were led by dictators, the United States relied upon several of these states as allies against the larger Cold War battles.

The most prominent example is Nicaragua. Carter's rhetoric encouraged a revolution within the nation. Unfortunately, the leader, Anastasio Somoza, was an ally of the United States! The revolution, led by militant communists (known as the Sandinistas), replaced the Somoza regime and drove a wedge between United States and Nicaraguan relations.

Carter took on several other issues in specific areas of the world throughout the rest of his presidency. In Latin America, he agreed to return the Panama Canal to Panama over the course of 20 years; Panama was guaranteed total control by the year 2000. In the Middle East, Carter attempted to resolve the burgeoning issues between Egypt and Israel brought on largely by the Yom Kippur War in 1973. In 1978, Carter invited Menachem Begin, Prime Minister of Israel, and Anwar Sadat, President of Egypt, to Camp David. After nearly two weeks of negotiations, Carter was able to forge an agreement, known as the Camp David Accords, between the two nations that temporarily ended hostilities (I use the word temporarily because tension still remained long after the meetings).

Two important additional events in the Middle East jeopardized domestic support for the Carter Administration. The first was the Iran hostage situation in 1979. The United States had long supported Shah Reza Pahlavi as the leader in Iran. However, an internal revolution by Islamic fundamentalists dethroned Pahlavi; eventually he sought asylum in the United States. That refuge came with a price, as several revolutionary Iranians claimed 66 American hostages at the United States embassy in Teheran. The Iranians demanded Pahlavi in return for the hostages. Carter failed on all fronts to end the situation. It would not be until President Reagan entered office that the hostage crisis ended.

Simultaneously, 1979 marked the beginning of the Soviet-Afghan War. Carter withheld the United States from becoming embroiled in the conflict, which led many in the United States to believe that Carter represented the 'post-Vietnam syndrome' - that is, the unwillingness to enter the United States into another conflict. Carter attempted to impose several diplomatic and economic sanctions against the Soviet Union, but it was too little and too late.

Domestic Agenda

While Carter's foreign policy was often ambiguous and generally unsuccessful, his domestic policy was even less successful. Historians generally point to his creation of the Department of Education, amnesty for draft dodgers, expansive environmental legislation and increased federal hiring of minorities as accomplishments. Yet, his economic policy was largely unimpressive. Upon entering office, Carter promised to break the stagnant economy, lower unemployment and balance the budget. Unfortunately, Carter's economic plan failed on a number of levels, leaving most Americans believing, that by 1980, the economy was in serious peril.

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