Historians on the Biden-Carter ComparisonHistorians in the News
tags: inflation, Jimmy Carter, Joe Biden
In the lead-up to the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA)—a law securing the biggest climate investment in U.S. history and leading to lower prescription drug costs for seniors, which President Joe Biden is set to sign this week—one particular comparison point loomed large over Biden’s economic agenda: President Jimmy Carter.
For months, conservative-leaning politicians and news outlets have derisively compared him to his predecessor. Senator Tom Cotton, an Arkansas Republican, quipped on Twitter on July 28 that “Jimmy Carter has a defamation case against anyone comparing him to Joe Biden.” In a recent FOX News op-ed, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich wrote that voters “need to reject the policy failures of Presidents Jimmy Carter and Joe Biden.” Nor were the connections coming only from across the aisle: In January, Vice President Kamala Harris drew comparisons to Carter when she spoke of “a level of malaise” in a PBS News Hour interview, echoing the former President’s so-called “malaise” speech from July 1979.
For Republicans, the references are shorthand for a failed presidency, but many historians have argued that in fact, the Carter comparisons aren’t necessarily the insult they’re intended to be. For years, the Carter Administration has been dogged by a reputation for ineffectiveness, but a recent wave of reconsideration posits that this notoriety is far from deserved, and that Carter was more successful than he got credit for at the time—and, to some political observers, the passage of the IRA shows that Biden can’t be seen as ineffective either.
And the fact that parallels have been drawn between the two presidencies is perhaps unsurprising. Both administrations faced a level of distrust from Americans. In a July 23, 1979, cover story headlined “At the Crossroads,” TIME described Carter as “surprisingly candid about his perception of the national mood,” which he summed up as “a ‘malaise’ of confusion, pessimism and distrust that had roots much deeper than gasoline lines or double-digit inflation.” In 2022, surveys likewise found that the majority of Americans are “dissatisfied” with the national situation.
Those two factors mentioned by Carter are making a dent now, too. Inflation preoccupied the U.S. during the 1970s and then reached a 40-year high this spring. “People are drawing comparisons because, in many ways, the trigger for inflation is much the same—having to do with oil and energy,” says Meg Jacobs, author of Panic at the Pump, about the 1970s energy crisis. During the Carter Administration as well as today, geopolitical struggle and unrest triggered oil shortages and oil shocks.
As Stuart Eizenstat, Carter’s Chief White House Domestic Policy Advisor, joked about what it was like to go to work back then, “I had to wait 30 minutes in line [for gas] to get to the White House to deal with the problem of the gas lines.” Amid discussions about whether the U.S. is currently facing stagflation (high inflation and slow economic growth), Eizenstat describes dealing with stagflation in the Carter years as “like having salt poured in a wound every single day…We tried to get OPEC to increase production and make up for the shortfall, not unlike President [Biden’s] trip to Saudi Arabia.”