Carter Takes the Prize Among the Worst Presidents

May 22 (Bloomberg) — Jimmy Carter told NBC yesterday that he had been misinterpreted over the weekend in his comments on George W. Bush.

At issue was the former president's statement in the Arkansas Post-Gazette on May 19: "I think as far as the adverse impact on the nation around the world, this administration has been the worst in history."

Yesterday, he was calling his remark "careless."

Carter was probably inspired to mouth off by the fresh popularity of the politician most like him — Al Gore, who's being talked about as a presidential candidate. It's interesting that Carter even raised the topic of bad presidents, for if he's not the worst, he's right up there.

Consider, to start, Carter's domestic policies. The man subscribed to what might be called sloppy Keynesianism, believing the best way to help the economy was to spend on just about anything. And he loved to continue high-handed experiments, even years after they had proven themselves perverse.

By the time Carter came to office, for example, the long lines at the gas pumps had already become a cliche — an emblem of the failure of price controls. Carter started out by opposing controls — a good idea. But he did so for the wrong reason: He said the expectation of such controls would drive up prices as people hoarded gas.

Once in office, Carter kept many controls in place, helping to cause further pain at the pump. He also ignored his own campaign promise to governors to back the deregulation of natural-gas prices, a betrayal that kept prices up.


What's more, Carter added insult to injury by scolding his countrymen: "Tonight I want to talk to you about an unpleasant topic," he began in one of his speeches. Calling the American struggle for energy independence the "moral equivalent of war," Carter cast the energy problem as quasi-religious, something that might go away if citizens insulated their houses and dialed back the thermostat a few notches. In the same talk — it is known as the MEOW speech — he presented his ideas in apocalyptic tones worthy of Gore.

Wallowing in gloom, Carter warned that "some time in the 1980s" oil demand would overtake production. This was the opposite of what happened — there was a glut later.

When it came to taxes, insightful lawmakers realized that a cut in the capital-gains tax might pull the country out of the doldrums. Capital-gains cuts are almost always beneficial, as the current president — as well as Bill Clinton in his day — have demonstrated.

But Carter threatened a veto. A Carter Treasury official even wrote the Wall Street Journal to make the absurd argument that such a cut would make it harder for the government to redistribute income. The president caved, and the tax cut did stir the economy, but you never got the idea Carter picked up on all the connections.

No Excuse

One might excuse Carter's budget deficits by comparing them with those of Ronald Reagan, except in Carter's case the spending was devoted to programs that yielded pathetic returns. Carter noisily doubled, for example, the number of federally funded public-service jobs. Unemployment in his years mostly stayed far above the 5 percent level upon which he premised his plans.

To be sure, Richard Nixon was the one to appoint Arthur Burns, the notoriously loose-money Federal Reserve chairman. But Carter was responsible for hiring Burns's equally flawed successor, G. William Miller. Inflation during Carter's tenure averaged 9.6 percent, according to data compiled by Bloomberg, the highest of any four-year presidential term in modern U.S. history.

Strange Phrases

Strange new phrases became popular: the wage-price spiral, stagflation. To control these novel horrors, politicians came up with crazy gizmos, such as a device to protect workers from inflation by offering them something called the wage-insurance tax credit. The Dow Jones Industrial Average silently offered its own evaluation of Carter's performance by staying below its 1000-point high of the summer of 1976 until October 1982, by which time the former president was safely ensconced at Emory University, teaching undergraduates political science.

But it is in the area where Carter assails Bush — foreign policy — in which he took the missteps that turned out to be of greatest consequence. By negotiating the soft Strategic Arms Limitations Treaty (SALT) with Moscow, he suggested to the Soviet Union that his administration wasn't serious about protecting American interests. This emboldened Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev to send troops into Afghanistan in 1979. The later Soviet withdrawal led to the chaos that allowed Afghanistan to become a sanctuary for al-Qaeda.

Hostage Crisis

Then came a new kind of crisis. Heretofore, Arab nationalism had dominated unrest in the Middle East. Now Islamic fundamentalists stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, taking 66 Americans hostage. Instead of seeing the attack as an assault on U.S. interests, Carter treated the terrorists as if they were college sophomores staging a sit-in at Columbia's Low Library. His approach involved group-prayer sessions at home and endless negotiations, telling the press that "we are using every channel." This virtually ensured the year-and-a-half-long siege that the hostages endured.

Carter did veer from his passivity to make a half-hearted rescue effort, a catastrophic mission. But shocked by the photos of malfunctioning helicopters, Carter retreated. His handling of the embassy crisis sent a message that the U.S. prefers sanctimony to fighting back against violent fundamentalist Islam. That picture of wishy-washy America is still costing lives today.

Recalling all this puts other unpopular presidents in a new light — especially on the question of consistency. Whatever you say of the 43rd president, when it comes to the Middle East, Bush is sticking to his policy. As yesterday's recanting demonstrates, Carter, by contrast, is still prevaricating. Who's worse?

(Amity Shlaes, a visiting senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)

© Copyright 2007 Bloomberg

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