James Earl Carter Jr. was the 39th president of the U.S., serving from 1977 to 1981. Upon entering office, he had to fight the stagflation that had occurred under the Nixon administration. His one-term presidency ended under the shadow of the Iran hostage crisis, but 9.3 million jobs were added, one of the largest increases under any president. In 2002, he received the Nobel Peace Prize for his work on the 1978 Camp David Accord.
Jimmy Carter's Accomplishments and Policies
Carter’s immediate challenge was the combination of inflation and unemployment. President Nixon had created inflation by ending the gold standard in 1971. As a result, the dollar's value plummeted on the foreign exchange markets. Import prices rose and created inflation. Nixon tried to stop it with wage-price controls in 1971. That cramped business growth and increased unemployment.
The Federal Reserve fought the resultant slow growth by lowering interest rates. The economy improved, creating millions of jobs. But inflation threatened the resulting prosperity. In 1979, President Carter appointed Paul Volcker as the chair of the Fed. He raised interest rates and ended double-digit inflation.
The Volcker Shock caused a recession that helped destroy Carter’s re-election chances. Until the Fed got the economy under control, it suffered from the combination of high unemployment and high inflation. It led to the creation of the misery index.
In 1979, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) raised oil prices to an average of $20 a barrel. In response, President Carter instituted energy conservation measures. U.S. oil consumption per person was twice that of Europe and almost three times that of Japan.
To end the energy crisis, the Carter administration created automobile mileage standards. It deregulated the airline, trucking, and railroad industries. He established a national energy policy that deregulated oil prices to increase U.S. supply. The combination of lower demand and higher supply led to lower oil prices. To prevent future energy crises, Carter created the U.S. Department of Energy. Its goal is to regulate the industry and fund research on alternative fuels.
Carter's environmental policies extended further still. He signed the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act. It protected more than 100 million acres of land. He also expanded the national park system. The administration established a "superfund" to clean up toxic-waste sites and regulated strip mining.
President Carter also created the U.S. Department of Education to assist the nation’s schools, collect data on their performances, and enforce civil rights. Conservatives opposed it because they said it wasn’t mentioned specifically in the U.S. Constitution, but Carter argued that an educated labor force creates a more productive economy.
He increased payroll taxes to keep Social Security from going bankrupt. Working with Congress, Carter also raised the minimum wage to increase payroll tax revenues.
Carter also had some major success in foreign policy. In 1978, he negotiated the Camp David Accords, which led to a lasting peace treaty between Israel and Egypt.
Also in 1978, Carter established full diplomatic relations with China. It reduced tensions in Asia and led to China’s shift from being a dominant military presence to an economic one. That allowed the United States to import consumer goods, lowering inflation but creating a trade deficit.
In 1979, President Carter negotiated the SALT II nuclear limitation treaty with the Soviets. But six months later, the Soviets started a war in Afghanistan that prevented the agreement’s ratification.
Iran Hostage Crisis
On November 4, 1979, Iranian students took 66 American diplomats hostage at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. They were protesting Carter’s decision to allow the deposed shah to come to the United States for cancer treatment. Students were also supporting the Islamic rule of their country under Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Ten days later, Carter imposed sanctions on Iran. He also froze all Iranian assets that were under the jurisdiction of the United States.
In April 1980, Carter sent an elite military team to rescue the hostages. A sandstorm botched the operation and killed eight servicemen. Although Carter's administration negotiated a release in December 1980, it was too late to save Carter's presidency. The remaining American hostages were released a few hours after Ronald Reagan’s inaugural address.
Carter and the Debt
Carter added $299 billion to the $699 billion debt existing at the end of President Gerald Ford's last budget, Fiscal Year 1977. This 43% increase was modest, compared to other U.S. debt added by some presidents.
After Leaving Office
Jimmy Carter has used his status as an ex-president to assist in peace-keeping missions. He has mediated disputes between the United States and North Korea, Libya, and West Asian countries.
The Carters have volunteered for Habitat for Humanity for 35 years. The organization has helped 13 million people find housing. Carter also established the Carter Center at Emory University, which furthers peace, human rights, and democracy. It led a coalition that almost eradicated the Guinea worm disease.
Carter is a prolific writer, having written 32 books. Some of his most popular include:
- Sources of Strength: Meditations on Scripture for a Living Faith (1997)
- The Virtues of Aging (1998)
- An Hour Before Daylight: Memories of a Rural Boyhood (2001)
- The Hornet’s Nest: A Novel of the Revolutionary War (2003)
- Our Endangered Values: America’s Moral Crisis (2005)
- Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid (2007)
- White House Diary (2010)
- We Can Have Peace in the Holy Land: A Plan That Will Work (2010)
- Through the Year: 366 Daily Meditations From the 39th President (2011)
- A Call to Action: Women, Religion, Violence, and Power (2015)
- A Full Life: Reflections at Ninety (2016)
- Faith: A Journey for All (2018)
As president, Jimmy Carter received a salary of $200,000 a year with an additional expense account of $50,000. That’s worth roughly $1 million in 2020.
The Former Presidents Act of 1958 mandates that U.S. presidents get lifetime pensions equal to what the head of a federal government executive department would receive. In 2018, that pay was $213,600 annually. Inclusive in the 1958 mandate are funds for office space, support staff, travel, and mailing costs. President Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, are also entitled to lifetime Secret Service protection.
Carter’s Early Years
Carter showed his leadership abilities even as a boy. By the age of 13, he had saved enough money from selling produce to buy five rental houses. He graduated in the top 10% of his class at the Naval Academy and subsequently taught nuclear engineering to the crew of the first nuclear submarine, the Seawolf.
In 1953, Carter returned to run his ailing father’s peanut farm. He fought discrimination in the South as he had in the Navy. He became a state senator after proving that his opponent’s win was based on voter fraud.
In 1970, Carter became Georgia’s governor. He continued to fight segregation and cut government bureaucracy. He became chair of the Democratic Governor’s Campaign Committee, then the campaign chair of the Democratic National Committee. He won the presidency in 1976 by running as an outsider who would clean up Washington after the Watergate scandal.
Carter’s Age and Health
Carter was born on October 1, 1924. As of June 2022, he was 97 years old. That makes him the oldest living president. On March 22, 2019, he turned 94 years and 172 days, making Carter the longest-living president to date.
The former president’s advanced age makes many people wonder about his health. In 2015, Carter reported that he had melanoma that had spread from his liver to his brain. Four months later, he announced he was free of cancer after being treated with pembrolizumab, an immunotherapy drug.
In 2019, Carter received treatments for a number of health complications.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
Whom did Jimmy Carter run against?
Jimmy Carter ran against President Gerald Ford. Ford ran as an incumbent, although he had never been elected. President Richard Nixon had appointed Ford as vice president after Nixon's first vice president had resigned amid scandal. When Nixon himself resigned, Ford ascended to the presidency.
What major foreign policy issues did Jimmy Carter have to deal with during his presidency?
Some regard President Jimmy Carter's work in negotiating a Middle East peace deal between Israeli and Egyptian officials as his greatest foreign policy achievement. He also expanded on President Nixon's work normalizing relations with China. In the final days of his term, he negotiated a deal to release American hostages from Iranian captivity.