Well before the troubles in Iran and Afghanistan, political commentators had begun to predict that Carter would serve for only one term. To many commentators, he seemed to be a failure and responsible for his own difficulties. Although he was intelligent, worked hard, and was honest, sincere, and emotionally secure, he seemed to suffer from inexperience in dealing in Washington and from heavy reliance on inexperienced advisers. He tried to do too much himself and did not have a chief of staff coordinating work in the White House and its relations with others. He appeared to be indecisive, made too many proposals at a time, did not define his priorities clearly, and did not have a carefully articulated philosophy to help him make such a definition. He seemed to have contempt for the realities of the Washington scene and to be uninterested in working closely with organized groups, congressmen, and his party. He frequently denounced Congress—a Congress controlled by his own party—as dominated by special interests like the oil companies. And he seemed weak in his dealings with people, retreated too readily under pressure, and needed to be much more forceful.
Carter, realizing that many of these criticisms were justified, made changes in 1978. He added some experienced people to the White House staff and conferred more authority on Jordan for the management of it. He made greater efforts to cultivate congressmen and other people in the capital, and at the same time, he went out among the people, beyond Washington. He supplied a definition of his priorities and tried to deal more forcefully with members of his administration, congressmen, and others.
Such efforts did not give Carter a long-lasting boost. Approval of his performance jumped to nearly 60 percent following the Camp David accords, but by the spring of 1979, the rating was below 40 percent again. Many people now saw him as an ineffective president, incapable of moving the nation forward. All of this depressed the president. In July, after meeting at Camp David with a wide range of prominent people, he tried to revive confidence with a major speech that defined a "crisis of spirit" as the country's major problem and called for "confidence and a sense of community." Promising once again to supply the kind of leadership required, he also tried to strengthen his administration by making changes in his cabinet and took another journey of contact with the people. But his approval rating dropped below 25 percent.
The president was trying to provide leadership, but he occupied an office, and presided over a system, that had been discredited for many people by past performances. To one observer from the left, it seemed that "the widespread loss of confidence in our political institutions and leaders, the lack of respect for authority, the alienation from the official values of the society, even the revulsion from politics [were] sensible responses to the debacle accomplished by those in authority."
Many Americans believed that their governments had shown themselves to be immoral, inefficient, and ineffective. They seemed to be very active but to be accomplishing very little; they seemed too big to work. To many people, the tax system seemed unfair, in that it favored the wealthy. To many others, it merely seemed too burdensome for the benefits governments conferred. In California in 1978, the antitax feeling reached a new high with the passage of Proposition 13, which slashed property taxes and threatened funds for schools and other services. Such moves reflected deep unhappiness with what governments were doing and with government officials, as well as with the size of tax bills.
People on the right as well as the left expressed the spirit of discontent. Many intellectuals on the right and left were united in their belief that American realities were sordid. American leaders did not deserve confidence. It would be only a matter of time, according to this scenario, before the nation discovered that Carter was as corrupt as the men who had gone before him. Such skepticism was not restricted to intellectuals and people influenced by them. White-collar workers, blue-collar workers, and middle-class Americans of various occupations also felt like strangers in a nation controlled by a liberal establishment hostile to their values. Country music, popular throughout the nation with working-class, rural, and small-town people, sang of the superiority of the rural South, a surviving symbol of a vanished America, and expressed profound discontent with the now dominant style of life. Although seemingly filled with love of country, the music contained resentment and hostility toward the people in the big cities, who seemed responsible for the rise of the new way of life. Carter, as a small-town southerner, had some appeal for country music fans, but he quickly lost much of it when he became, and behaved like, a man of power.
Evangelical Christianity, a reviving and fast-growing movement of 30 million to 40 million people, also reflected deep discontent with what America, and especially American leaders, had become. "Americans are undergoing a crisis of meaning and self-confidence," one observer noted, "and large numbers of them are turning or returning to religion, usually of the pietistic and evangelical kind." Those in the Southern Baptist contingent especially had had high hopes for Carter's presidency, since they considered him one of them, but he could not satisfy their yearnings for the redemption of government through the election of honest, moral, and simple leaders. Although Carter's Baptist faith continued to influence him and to offend some big-city Americans, he came to seem to many evangelicals as just another politician. Some evangelicals had doubted his religious commitment from the outset, and many of those caught up in what has been labeled "a third Great Awakening" were uninterested in public life and contemporary issues.
Carter also had to contend with a skeptical, often hostile press that had been deeply affected by the traumas of the recent past. Strengthened by the development of television, the press was animated by a new spirit. Often resentful of the efforts of past presidents to manipulate them, media people now frequently expressed mistrust of the presidency and were much more likely to criticize a president than to be used by him. They often aimed their fire at Carter. He, in turn, resented press criticism and frequently expressed a low opinion of newspeople.
In addition, Carter had to deal with an active and critical Congress. Embarrassed by charges of past subservience to the White House, Congress had become more assertive—more determined not to be a rubber stamp. Many new members, shaped by recent experiences, especially Vietnam and Watergate, no longer deferred to senior members, insisted upon a new code of ethics, and demanded that the president avoid the "excesses" of the past at home and abroad. Senior members, possessed of a strong sense of pride and independence, were quick to press views that diverged from those of the president, even when he was a member of their own party. Furthermore, all members of Congress had staffs that were much larger and more professional than they had been only a few years earlier. To many people on Capitol Hill, including many Democrats, it seemed that Carter was not sufficiently respectful of them and their ways, did not consult with them in a timely and consistent fashion, and asked them for too much. Thus, relations between Carter and Congress were seldom smooth and frequently hostile, even after his efforts at improvement in 1978.
Furthermore, the president had, to a significant degree, lost the presidency's strongest allies and defenders, the liberals. Since the days of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, they had advocated a strong White House, seeing it as the most effective promoter of broad and desirable national interests. But recent events had changed them; they, too, distrusted that office and offered new support for a Congress and press corps that checked, rather than cooperated with, the president. In fact, these new liberals were well represented in the press, Congress, congressional staffs, the bureaucracy, and the public-interest pressure groups.
Carter suffered from still another problem. He could not rally the public by making promises similar to those made by leaders in the past. He could not easily promise victories abroad, continuous growth, and ever higher standards of living. The American defeat in Vietnam, the new complexities of the international situation, and the energy crisis mocked such promises.
Carter understood the difficulties he faced and was, in a sense, a representative of them. Aware of the public's disenchantment with government, he had run against Washington in 1976. Although he frequently turned to government, rather than the private sector, to deal with problems, such as energy, and thought more of making big government more efficient through reorganization than of scaling it down, he often indicated that he did not expect as much from government as some of his predecessors had and many of his liberal contemporaries still did.
Although an active president, he carefully stayed within lines that some of his predecessors had crossed. Although he was active abroad, he worried about the dangers that world affairs contained. He was also sensitive to the implications of the energy crisis, much more so than most Americans. Carter often expressed a sense of the limits on things. He talked of the limits of his own powers and those of the government and the nation. He urged people not to expect too much. Few people derived inspiration from such rhetoric. In addition to his troubles at home, Carter suffered from criticism from his Western allies. Leaders in Western Europe had low opinions of his leadership and his policies.
Not surprisingly, Carter was a one-term president and even had to struggle to obtain renomination by his own party. In the 1980 primaries, Senator Edward Kennedy challenged him, arguing that Carter had betrayed the liberal principles of his party. The president refused to campaign until May, maintaining that the difficulties in Iran and Afghanistan forced him to stay in the White House; and Kennedy, while winning several primaries, did fail to defeat him, in part because Carter used all of the devices at a president's disposal, in part because people for a time rallied behind their president in the Iran and Afghanistan crises, and in part because of concern about Kennedy's moral character. Against Kennedy, a militant liberal, Carter appeared to use quite effectively the argument that people should recognize the great difficulties he faced and not expect too much.
The victories in the primaries did not lead to a smashing success at the Democratic National Convention. The Republicans met first; by the time they did so, Reagan, their leading contender, was ahead of the president in the polls, and during their convention, Reagan moved far ahead of Carter. By August, only about 22 percent of the people, according to the polls, approved of Carter, a new low for presidents, even lower than Nixon in 1974 and Truman in 1951. Fearing that the president would lead the entire ticket to defeat, some Democrats tried to dump him, but they could not come up with a strong contender. "There are no heroes anymore," one explained. So the party nominated Carter without enthusiasm or optimism and remained divided, with Kennedy supplying little support for the ticket.