A few days ago, I posted a link from CBS's 60 Minutes about Jimmy Carter and the Carter Presidency. In that story and video, former President Carter suggested that his presidency had been a success because of significant legislative achievements, and that the only reason his was viewed as a failure was because he hadn't been re-elected. I said he might have a point, at least in the context that he had accomplished more than people were willing to credit him with. But with that point comes a number of other issues he might well have avoided stirring up.
Maybe it is time for a re-evaluation of his presidency, but it definitely needs to be objective and focused in three areas: Foreign policy, domestic programs, and governance.
In terms of foreign policy, he clearly presided over a mixed bag. While there were accomplishments in the Middle East and elsewhere, Carter's basic naiveté regarding the Soviet Union, Afghanistan, Iran and North Korea (as well as Panama, Cuba and Nicaragua) contributed to a significant expansion of Soviet influence throughout the world. He negotiated a SALT Treaty with Moscow that the Senate blankly refused to consider, thinking it a very bad deal indeed for the US. Much of Africa either went directly under Communist control, or governments were assailed by burgeoning Communist insurrections. In Central America, Cuba was the continuing wild card, but Nicaragua moved from a US ally to a Cuban satellite regime, and several other Central and South American countries found themselves pushed hard by homegrown, Havana and Moscow supplied insurrections. And the UN firmly moved from an organization normally sympathetic to US causes to one usually antagonistic toward them. Sadat/Begin notwithstanding, the world was definitely a more precarious place when he left office than when he arrived.
In terms of domestic policy, deregulation had a significant effect on the economy, and Carter did nominate Paul Volcker to the Fed. We got a Department of Education (which didn't help much), and a raft of new regulations in other areas (which didn't help at all). His backpatting reference to his legislative batting average is entertaining. He had a Democratic Congress and a quiescent Republican opposition. He should have gotten things passed, and he did. He also had horrendous relations with Congressional leadership, who found him dogmatic, naive, judgmental and petty. By the end of his term, the Democratic leadership in Congress hated him, and the loathing was mutual.
But it is in governance where Carter falls precipitously to the ground. The president must lead, and in that sense, it hardly matters whether programs get through Congress. What matters is the confidence on the part of the people and the Congress and the military and the press that someone is standing by the wheel, and is in charge. As event after event spun out of control, Carter spent his time minutely examining problems and forgetting big picture perceptions.
In all, if not a failed presidency, certainly one that was significantly flawed and definitively cut short. Successful presidents do not have primary opponents, and Kennedy had a chance to beat him. And successful presidents tend not to get pounded in re-election bids; Carter's election night was done just after the polls in California closed.
I would suggest that there is more to the Carter story than a simple "Jimmy Went to Washington and Couldn't Hack It" meme, but "successful" is not the word I would use to describe his WHite House tenure.