By Michael Gerhardt
Most people think of Jimmy Carter, if they ever do, as a failed president and perhaps overly energetic former president. Yet a closer look at his four years in office suggest there was more to his presidency than his forging a Middle East peace initiative and his landslide loss in his reelection campaign based on rising inflation, the popularity of his opponent Ronald Reagan, and inept managing of the Iran hostage crisis. Indeed, here are five things you may not about Carter’s presidency.
First, he was actually able to get Congress to approve most of his ambitious legislative agenda. Though Carter had tense relationships with the Democratic majority in Congress throughout most of his presidency, Carter signed several landmark pieces of legislation into law in environmental regulation and government ethics.
Second, Carter diversified the federal judiciary to an unprecedented degree. He appointed more women and minorities to federal judgeships than any previous president. Indeed, his judicial nominees became a model for those of later Democratic presidents, including Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. Clinton’s two Supreme Court appointees — Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer — had previously been federal courts of appeal judges appointed by President Carter.
Third, Jimmy Carter was the first person from the deep South elected President of the United States. Indeed, his support in Southern States had been instrumental to his election in 1976, and the loss of that support was devastating to his reelection bid.
Fourth, Jimmy Carter was the first Evangelical elected President of the United States. Indeed, Carter’s open religiosity, including his teaching Sunday school and acknowledging his religious faith as the basis for many of his political (and international) initiatives, became a model for subsequent presidents, who have all openly discussed the importance of their religious faiths in their lives.
Last but not least, Carter’s leadership in civil rights still resonates in American politics, particularly among Democratic presidents. He was the first president to champion women’s rights and affirmative action, which both Presidents Clinton and Obama have supported as well.
Nor is this all there was to Carter’s presidency. Both his successes and failures in office are important to understand in order to appreciate the extent of even an unpopular president’s powers in office.
Michael Gerhardt is Samuel Ashe Distinguished Professor of Constitutional Law at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. A nationally recognized authority on constitutional conflicts, he has testified in several Supreme Court confirmation hearings, and has published five books, including The Forgotten Presidents and The Power of Precedent. Read his previous blog posts on the American presidents.
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Image credit: Official Presidential portrait of James Earl “Jimmy” Carter by Herbert E. Abrams. White House. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.