Could Joe Biden become the worst Democratic president since Jimmy Carter, as his detractors suggest?
Or can I suggest that being as good as Jimmy Carter wouldn’t be a bad thing either.
Biden declared yesterday: “This is the time to heal in America”. He has said all along that his main goal would be “to restore basic decency and honesty”.
The best precedent for that is indeed president Carter.
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On election eve, I watched a wonderful new documentary, Jimmy Carter: Rock & Roll President, which showed an unknown side to the much maligned but thoroughly decent 39th president.
Contrary to his Bible-bashing image, Carter was actually a funky dude who harnessed popular music and was close friends with leading “radicals” of his time, from Bob Dylan to Hunter S. Thompson.
But what strikes a chord today was how this man of integrity was elected to heal a nation still reeling from the Watergate scandal only two years before.
Then, as now, Americans went to the polls disgusted by the corruption, dishonesty and turmoil of the previous Republican administration.
They were so disgusted that they elected a little-known peanut farmer from the South who had been a considered a rank outsider at best, a joke at worst. (The fact he was also a nuclear engineer and former governor of Georgia was often lost in the “Mr Carter Goes To Washington” narrative).
There are plenty of parallels with Joe Biden — not least being both have a warm wide smile and an image of being hardworking and honest, which is crucial at a time of widespread cynicism and despair.
Both appealed to voters in large part because it seemed they might restore some dignity to the office after years of trauma.
They also both faced voters at a time of economic upheaval. In Carter’s case it was exacerbated by the Middle East oil shock during his term. In Biden’s case it’s the shock of a pandemic.
International relations were also in turmoil in the 1970s, but Carter had plenty of wins, from the Panama Canal treaties to the Camp David Accords between Israel and Egypt. Yet his failure to deal with the collapse of the Shah’s regime in Iran and subsequent hostage crisis is seen as his greatest failure.
Carter’s outsider status was seen as his downfall. Nearly half a century later it was considered a plus for Donald Trump.
Still, Biden’s “insider” status will give him advantages Carter never had, including the ability to negotiate with Congress and prior experience in the White House. It has been noted already that Biden will surround himself with Very Serious People, which will be a relief after the cabal of corrupt incompetents we’ve endured of late.
Carter of course never had to put up with social media or the formidable opposition of the right-wing media led by the odious Fox Network. Any honeymoon that Biden gets will be tempered by the continued insurgence of Fox.
In the end, it could be to Biden’s advantage to start with such low expectations. After all, any functioning adult is an improvement on his predecessor.