Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter: Two of the Unluckiest Presidents

In the mid-1970s, the US was led by two good and decent men, one Republican (Gerald Ford), and one Democrat (Jimmy Carter), who as it turned out were very unpopular through no fault of their own, but because of the economy and foreign fiascoes beyond their control.

“John Green teaches you about the economic malaise that beset the United States in the 1970s. A sort of perfect storm of events, it combined the continuing decline of America’s manufacturing base and the oil shocks of 1973 and 1979, and brought about an stagnant economy, paired with high inflation. Economists with a flair for neologisms and portamenteau words called this “stagflation,” and it made people miserable. Two presidential administrations were scuttled at least in part by these economic woes; both Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter are considered failed presidents for many reasons, but largely because of an inability to improve the economy. (hint: In reality, no one person can materially change something as big as the world economy, even if they are president, but one person sure can make a handy scapegoat!) So, by and large, the 70s were a pretty terrible time in America economically, but at least the decade gave us Mr. Green.” Transcript.

Democrat Jimmy Carter won the 1976 election against Republican incumbent Jerry Ford by a hair. In retrospect, Democrats and liberalism would have been far better off if Carter lost to either Ford or Ronald Reagan that year, and came roaring back in 1980 with an achievable agenda. In 1976, Reagan almost wrested the Republican nomination from Ford. If he had, and gone on to beat Carter, his historical reputation would be very different, not nearly as successful, and he would not be remembered nearly so fondly. Such are the ironies of history and the limitations of the Great Men Theory. Michael Kazin explained succinctly in a review of a book by Carter aide Stu Eisenstadt, President Carter: White House Years

“Jimmy Carter was surely one of the unluckiest presidents in US history. He took office in 1977 with an economy racked by stagflation and dependent on imported oil; a foreign policy humbled by the debacle of the Vietnam War; a Democratic Party split between Northern liberals and Southern conservatives; and a country in the grip of rampant cynicism on the question of whether the federal government was able to solve any serious problem at all. Outside the White House, Carter also faced a growing political right united around Ronald Reagan, the former governor of California, and eager to pounce on any missteps or signs of weakness. Even a shrewd politician would have found it difficult to successfully navigate these obstacles to accomplish big things and get himself re-elected.”

Kazin points out that Carter did not lose Iran; the Shah lost his own country. But Carter did lose organized labor, which he could have held if he had supported their congressional agenda and staved off a challenge from Senator Edward Kennedy. Kazin’s piece appeared in The Nation. Read the whole thing.


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