Carter and the eroding presidency
Washington — In the 11 weeks to Nov. 4, Jimmy Carter must labor uphill to re-elect himself. He will carry the kind of liabilities of presidential decisionmaking that forced two of his recent predecessors to leave the office prematurely and contributed to Mr. Carter's defeat of Gerald Ford in 1976.
And a negative 1980 Carter campaign strategy -- featuring an attack on the competence and judgment of Ronald Reagan -- could, in the view of presidential scholars, cost the President the public support he would need for a strong second term.
A mere anti-Reagan vote "wouldn't give Carter the popular support he would need the next four years," says one authority on the White House.
Not since Dwight Eisenhower has a president's high esteem with the people accompanied him out of office, observes Stephen Wayne, George Washington University White House expert. And Ike's high regard was based on his military leadership record during World War II, remembered as a noble period in US history.
The post-Ike presidents who could have faced re-election endured a falloff in approval their last year in office. This was the case, too, for Eisenhower's predecessor, Harry Truman.
"Eisenhower resisted the trend, remaining up on the mountain," Mr. Wayne says. "People continued to like him regardless of what happened."
Although it was widely believed that John Kennedy was headed toward a second term when he was assassinated, his successor, Lyndon Johnson, was harried into forgoing a second term.
Specific causes can be cited for the recent presidential declines. "With Johnson, it was the Vietnam war," says Democratic pollster and strategist Paul Lutzker. "With Nixon, it was Watergate. With Ford, it was the Nixon pardon. And with Carter, it's the economy."
But Wayne and others also see a weakening of the presidency since Vietnam and Watergate that makes it difficult for officeholders to fulfill expectations.
"There's something institutional about the decline," Wayne says. "A president starts with unrealistic expectation when he succeeds to office -- fueled by the desired of the people and fuzziness on the part of candidates. Once he starts making decisions, and problems persist, the public sees he's not the hero they'd expected. Thus, there is a steady drop in popularity over time in office, except for momentary achievements."
An incumbent's standing tends to build up again -- for partisan reasons -- in the closing campaign weeks if he runs for re-election. "The public judges him against another individual and not as an ideal type," Wayne says. "When Carter is judged against the ideal, he does poorly. Against Reagan he does better."
Carter is deliberately -- and laboriously -- inviting the mand-to-man comparison Wayne describes.
"The Carter acceptance speech was a real strain for him," Wayne says. "Carter strained to make out a precise difference between a Democratic or Republican victory. He strained to portray Reagan as a potential horror. He barely mentioned the difficulties of his own record. He strained with his voice to generate enthusiasm."
In contrast, at the 1976 Democratic convention, Carter could talk softly and be heard.
"In 1976, he offered hope," Wayne says. "In 1980, he played on fears."
President Carter, who did not even win the hearts of his hand-picked delegates at the convention, faces a tough task in courting and nation, says Lutzker.
"At least the right motions were made to put the party together in New York," Lutzer asserts. "But they were motions -- not based on deep-seated approval. They were token statements of endorsement at the convention. Little progress was made to broaden his coalition."
Carter is a formidable campaigner, but the electoral arithmetic is not encouraging. "The assets Carter has as President and use against REagan," Lutzker says. "Reagan gets Texas. Florida is a tossup.If Reagan wins Virginia, he in effect neutralizes the South.Carter will not do better in the West than in 1976. He's weak in the Northeast. And the Midwest is hard hit by recession, job loss."
If the Carter campaign focus on Reagan works, the people will be relieved Reagan is not elected, says Wayne. "The one problem is, Carter will be back in the White House on the base of a negative Reagan reaction. And he will be a lame duck.
"This was the way Carter won the nomination -- not because the people thought him a great president, but because the people saw no viable alternative," Wayne says.
It is by no means certain, however, that the public will follow the Carter bait and "judge Reagan against Carter or against an ideal type."
"If Carter is re-elected, it will mean the public will have lowered expectations for White House performance," says Wayne. "If Reagan wins, it may mean the public will have maintained its expectations. If the post- Vietnam pattern continues, we can then anticipate a downtrend in approval -- unless Reagan can find a secret for sustaining his approval. He is not the national hero Eisenhower was."