What historians think about comparisons between Joe Biden and Jimmy Carter

In at the beginning of the passage of Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) – law insurance the largest climate investment in US history and lead to lower prescription drug costs for seniors, which Pres Joe Biden is about to sign this week — one particular point of comparison hung over Biden’s economic agenda: President Jimmy Carter.

For months, politicians and conservative-leaning news outlets have derisively compared him to his predecessor. Senator Tom Cotton, Republican of Arkansas, he joked on Twitter on July 28 that “Jimmy Carter has a defamation suit against anyone who compares him to Joe Biden.” In recent FOX news op-ed, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich wrote that voters “must reject the political failures of Presidents Jimmy Carter and Joe Biden.” Nor did the connections just come from across the aisle: In January, Vice Pres Kamala Harris has drawn comparisons to Carter when she talks about a “level of malaise” in a The PBS News Hour interview rehashing the former president’s so-called “in the mood” speech from July 1979.

For Republicans, the references are shorthand for a failed presidency, but many historians argue that, in fact, Carter’s 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 rethinking suggests that this notoriety was far from deserved and that Carter was more successful than he was given credit for at the time — and for some political observers, the transition of the IRA shows that Biden cannot be seen as ineffective either.

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And the fact that parallels are drawn between the two presidencies is perhaps not surprising. Both administrations stood up level of distrust from Americans. In an article dated July 23, 1979, headline “At the Crossroads”, TIME described Carter as “surprisingly frank about his perception of the national mood,” which he summed up as a “malaise” of confusion, pessimism and mistrust that has roots far deeper than gas lines or double-digit inflation. In 2022, surveys also found that the majority of Americans are “unsatisfied” with the national situation.

These two factors mentioned by Carter are also being reflected now. Inflation preoccupied the US in the 1970s and beyond hit a 40-year high this spring. “People make comparisons because in many ways the cause of inflation is pretty much the same – oil and energy related,” says Meg Jacobs, author of pump panic, on the energy crisis of 1970. During the Carter administration, as today, geopolitical strife and unrest caused oil shortages and oil shocks.

As Stuart Eisenstat, the Carter White House’s chief domestic policy adviser, joked about what it was like to go to work back then: “I had to wait in line for 30 minutes [for gas] to get to the White House to deal with the pipeline problem. Amid discussions about whether the US is currently facing stagflation (high inflation and slow economic growth), Eisenstat describes dealing with stagflation in the Carter years as “like pouring salt into the wound every day… We tried to OPEC to increase production and make up for shortfalls, not for difference President [Biden’s] trip to Saudi Arabia.”

However, the COVID-19 pandemic distinguishes today’s inflation from the inflation Carter faced, which can be traced back to the macroeconomic factors of the 1960s that “messed up” the U.S. economy, says Gregory Brew, a historian of of Petroleum and a postdoctoral fellow at the Jackson School of Global Affairs at Yale University.

“The inflation that Biden is facing is very different from the inflation and economic problems that Carter is facing,” says Brew. “Carter came into office with inflation already on the agenda. This was a constant problem in the 1970s. Our current inflation problem took almost everyone by surprise when it began to emerge in late 2021… By comparison, Biden’s inflation outbreak stemmed from the post-COVID recovery and shocks to energy and food markets following Russia’s attack on Ukraine.”

Both Brew and Jacobs point out that climate change is affecting these policy decisions today in a way that it was not during the Carter administration.

“Climate change wasn’t on the agenda the way it is today, so it’s another huge issue that really has no parallel in the Carter era,” Brew says.

But while climate change is seen as a more pressing issue today than it was 40 years ago, Carter has pushed the alternative energy conversation forward. Under Carter, the Department of Energy was created, a bill was passed that increased investment in energy technology, and controls on domestic oil prices were removed.

“So the question is, will this be the time, unlike the 1970s, when we really see a shift to more sustainable clean energy?” Jacobs says. She sees the IRA as “finishing what Carter started,” citing Carter’s installation solar panels of the White House roof and pledging that the US will get 20% of its energy from solar and other alternative energy sources until 2000.

Read more: Former President Jimmy Carter: How Empowering Women and Girls Can Help Solve the Climate Crisis

Kai Bird, author of The Outlier: The Unfinished Presidency of Jimmy Carter, argues that another similarity between the two presidents is the difficulty of getting their messages across: “Both men are not very good at communicating in front of a television camera — Biden, partly because of their age, but also because of his verbosity and his tendency to think outside the box.” And Carter was just never good in front of the TV camera, so there’s another similarity.

But the main Biden-Carter comparisons Byrd has noted are rooted in what he says is a flawed argument that Carter hasn’t accomplished much. In fact, Byrd says, Carter played a key role in deregulating the airlines, trucking, and alcohol industries, as well as negotiating the SALT II arms control agreements, the Panama Canal Treaty, and the Israel-Egypt peace treaty.

“When people say, ‘Oh, Biden is like the ineffective, miserable Jimmy Carter,’ they get it all wrong,” Byrd says. “He’s been quite effective and being seen as weak is way off the mark.” He was actually a very determined, persistent, principled politician who worked extremely hard…I would say that Carter is not only the most worthy politician to occupy the White House in the 20th century, [but] without a doubt, the smartest, most intelligent, most well-read president we’ve ever had.”

Bidenalso received high marks from Carter supporters. “The Biden administration seems to be moving very well,” said Gerald Rafshun, Carter’s White House communications director. “He has good people” working for him. Byrd points out that Carter enjoyed large Democratic majorities in the House and Senate and thinks Biden has been “pretty effective” despite extremely thin majorities in both houses of Congress. However, Carter found it easier than Biden to get Senate judicial nominees confirmed, and by this point in his presidency had “remade the federal bench,” boasting the confirmations of several African-American nominees, women and Hispanics in federal district court.

But whether the comparison continues into the next election cycle may ultimately determine whether Biden is able to remain “fairly effective.”

“Everybody makes the comparison [between Carter and Biden], both because of levels of inflation that we haven’t seen since the Carter era and because of the political implications of that inflation,” Jacobs says. “And it’s not unreasonable to think that the situation will play out like it did under Jimmy Carter, which means there will be political consequences of high inflation rates for Biden as there were for Jimmy Carter.”

As Eisenstat recalled, before the 1978 midterm elections, “Carter’s polls collapsed in part because he couldn’t push through his energy package after 18 months of negotiations with an even more heavily Democratic Congress.” In the end, Carter triumphed by helping to negotiate an agreement that lifted Congress out of a “bitter dispute” over how natural gas should be regulated. But while the Democrats retained control of Congress in the 1978 midterm elections—perhaps a telling sign of today’s post-IRA Democrats—Carter lost the 1980 presidential election Ronald Reagan. In 1979 and 1980, Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker presided over interest rate hikes of up to 20% and the US fell into a deep recession.

But Rafshun says foreign policy, not domestic issues, led to that loss. “The main reason we lost was that we ran into [Iran] hostage crisis,” Rafshun argued. The political implications of the IRA and modern inflation, he says, cannot be assessed until closer to election day in 2024.

But the Carter White House can still teach a lesson for The Biden White House, Eisenstat says, “Go ahead. Keep your head up. Don’t show tension. Keep your optimism.”

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Write to Olivia B. Waxman c olivia.waxman@time.com.

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