Washington — Three years ago Jimmy Carter walked down Pennsylvania Avenue after taking the oath that made him 39th President of the United States. What did he think as he waved blithely to the crowds?
It looked easy from the outside, and he had made his race as a professional outsider. Except for four years in the Georgia Senate followed by four years as governor, he had not held public office; never in Washington. He started to run for the White House in the second year of his governorship, advisers declared. He was the first President elected under the new system of proliferating primaries -- almost a new way of government, some students argue. He came to the White House with one of the most extensive lists of candidate pledges ever put together in a campaign.
Now three years have elapsed and people are taking stock. How has it turned out? Not the way most people -- including Jimmy Carter -- expected. World events have taken a hand.
On the home front things have seemed much harder than he supposed. Inflation is rampant, interest rates have been hiked to curb it: unemployment has stabilized but is still high. The budget is still unbalanced. The President's party has big majorities in both houses of Congress, but they are fractious and his liaison leaves much to be desired. Like Presidents Nixon and Ford before him, he has not yet been able to get congress to enact a comprehensive energy program. His hope to reduce government offices from 1,900 to 200 seems as unrealistic now as when he optimistically enunciated it. He wanted to reduce arms expenditures, too, but is working now to expand them.
He has had successes -- biggest of all, perhaps, in normalizing relations with Communist China. He brought Israel and Egyptian leaders together by personal, patient persuasion at Camp David.
All very well, critics say, but how about the budget -- the decline in the domestic economy?
There have been mistakes that seemed amateurish: Mr. Carter clung to his budget director, Bert Lance, when everyone around him saw that Mr. Lance had to go; and the current Atlanta federal court trial of the former budget chief, concurrent with Mr. Carter's third anniversary in office, continues the embarrassment. The handling of the Cabinet shake-up last July was considered inept by many in Washington. (Five of 12 original Carter Cabinet members are gone after three years.) It took a year or so, too, for Mr. Carter to realize that he needed a chief of staff, like Hamilton Jordan, or a senior adviser, like Hedley Donovan.
The downward course of the polls traced Mr. Carter's difficulties. He had a high Gallup poll score of 75 percent in mid-March 1977, in the "honeymoon" period, and only 49 percent in March 1978. A CBS-New York Times poll in June 1978 rated him below all of his five predecessors at that point (38 percent). The slide continued. Harry Truman reached a low point for modern presidents (in spite of which he won in 1948). But President Carter fell below Mr. Truman. A Gallup poll on June 24, 1979, showed Senator Kennedy preferred by 62 percent of Democrats polled to only 24 percent for Carter. But one of the greatest reversals in modern times lay ahead.
Poll takers asked individuals to appraise Mr. Carter. He inspired "a firm image of honesty and competence," one survey reported. It was his "leadership qualities" that were in question. This was particularly true of his handling of domestic affairs. Suddenly, foreign crises became dominant.
Ironically, Mr. Carter appears to be buoyed now by events which he deplores -- first Iran, then Afghanistan. His patient handling of the kidnapping of 63 Americans in the Us embassy in Tehran infuriated many in the US; but what if he moved faster? The lives of 50 hostages (13 were released by their captors) were at stake. The public approved the President's policy. Qualities of composure, stability, and deliberate firmness, with an escalated pressure on unpredictable Iran, might work, it was hoped. Then came a far more dangerous test: Afghanistan. Mr. Carter said he was shocked by the Soviet invasion, and he said it in a way that conveyed his feeling to the public -- even, perhaps, at his own expense. Again it was characteristic of his leadership style.
"My opinion of the Russian," he told an ABC interviewer Dec. 31, "has changed more drastically in the last week than even in the previous 2 1/2 years.
Critics demanded why he hadn't felt that way before? Was he naive? At any rate, his statement sounded forthright and sincere; more so, perhaps, than eloquent oratory. His problem was to convince the public that this was a grave breach of world peace that required swift, strong response. Mr. Carter appeared to have the weight of world opinion behind him -- not only the West but the so-called third world. At home, the nation rallied behind the President as it always does in a foreign crisis. Iran and Afghanistan dominated other events as President Carter begin his fourth year in office.
Former White House speechwriter James Fallows, in articles in The Atlantic last summer, called the administration "the passionless presidency." Mr. Carter, however, seems to show plenty of passion in the current crises. It is partly his low-keyed manner that mutes his emotion, many say. Mr. Carter's quiet delivery is more successful in small groups than in swaying masses.
Washington, as Mr. Carter's third year ends, is a troubled capital, facing grave threats abroad and at home: sagging productivity, interrupted oil supplies , rising prices, turmoil in the Middle East, and a weight of indebtedness on developing nations that could bring a breakdown in the international financial system. The gathering tension recalls in 1930s.
While governor of Georgia, Jimmy Carter saw the vulnerable point in the new primary system for nominating presidents, and he attacked it, full time, for two years. It doesn't matter if only a fraction of the voters participate in caucuses and primaries. The minority who do vote may, through elected delegates , control the national conventions that nominate presidential candidates. In 1968 there were 17 primaries: this year there will be 37. In the old days, the political establishment -- the"bosses," the big contributors, the party's leading politicians -- generally decided the party nominee Now, special-interest groups and coherent minorities wield more power in the nominating process and the final election.
The new system favors a new kind of candidate -- not one schooled in compromise, in party unity, in consensus seeking like Lyndon Johnson, but one who is independent, strongly committed, and perhaps an outsiders type. Like Mr. carter, he may spend years campaigning.
President Carter no longer is an outsider but he still has trouble with the "system." He finds it hard to use patronage and to create a political consensus. His inexperienced liaison men affronted House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr. (D) of Massachusetts. The Bert Lance affair was a disaster. Many believe more skillfull handling of Senator Kennedy might have headed off his candidacy.
In summary, Mr. Carter is bouyed up, at present, by the foreign crises that absorb him and the nation. If they abate, however as all hope, the President's vulnerability on pocketbood issues will become more apparent. The recession. for example, which many expect might reach its peak just about Election Day.