Who is Jimmy Carter?

We (meaning, in this case, the American people) have known him for four years more or less. We nominated him four years ago to be the candidate of one of our two major parties to become President of the United States. Three months later we elected him as our President. Ever since we have watched him in action with varying reactions.

We applauded when he tried to find a solution to 30 years of war between Arabs and Israelis in the Middle East and for a time seemed to come closer than anyone else before him toward finding the right formula. But it is difficult to think of any one other subject where his actions or policies have received the general approval of the great majority of us.

Many of us applauded when he cut back on consumer credit as a means of checking the inflation. A lot of us thought he should have acted sooner and more drastically against inflation. But as soon as he did check inflation another lot of us complained that he was causing unemployment.

In almost every area of national policy the story is very much like the one in economics. He has done less than those on one side want but more than those on the other side approve. In military policy, he canceled the B-1 bomber, which infuriated the "hawks," but decided to go ahead on the cruise missiles and on the mobile MX, thus infuriating the "doves." He has proposed more defense spending in each of his first three years than Congress would accept.

Toward ailing industries he let Chrysler have government aid, but he has stood remarkably firm against the protectionist lobby. He has probably come closer to pleasing consumers and conservationists than other groups, but of course he has done less than consumer and conservationist lobbies want. He has disappointed organized labor and blacks but given more to both than employers and white racists deem suitable.

He has disappointed the welfare community by holding back on any national health program but disappointed the conservatives by also holding back on tax cuts.

Probably nothing he has done had provoked more controversy than his handling of events in and springing from Iran. Should he have let the Shah come to New York for medical treatment? Should he have authorized the military attempt to rescue the hostages? some think both were mistakes. But think of how he would have been criticized had he played both hands the other way.

All of which means something fairly interesting.

It means that Mr. carter as President has failed, or refused, to make himself the hero, the champion or the leader of any one faction of Americans against any one other faction.No one is wildly enthusiastic for him because no one group or faction recognizes in him the man who will put the interests of that group ahead of the interests of other groups. It is the group leader, hero, or champion who arouses enthusiasm.

Barry Goldwater was wildly popular with the radical right in the US political spectrum. George McGovern was equally popular with the radical left. Edward Kennedy is the political heir of Hubert Humphrey and George McGovern. Ronald Reagan is the political heir of Barry Goldwater. All champions of groups or factions develop popularity. Mr. Carter is remarkably lacking in enthusiastic popular support. Indeed, he is known as an unpopular president.

Mr. Carter is also widely known for what is called vacillation. But what lies behind the vacillation? On policy toward the Middle East, on military spending, on aiding ailing US industries, on taxation, on welfare legislation Mr. Carter is always somewhere in the middle. We find him sometimes seeming to lean one way, and then hastily adjusting to the other, but always in the middle, always trying to find the point of balance between Arabs and Israelis, between management and labor, between blacks and whites, between taxpayers and welfare recipients.

Is it right ot call it vacillation? Would it not be just as accurate to say that in the great issues which divide the American people today Mr. Carter is doing a remarkable job of managing to avoid committing the federal government to one group at the expense of another group? He is buffeted about by every lobby, every faction, every private or special interest -- all of them using every conceivable device for influencing government policy.

Personally I think that the endless task of finding the middle road through all of these controversies could have been managed more efficiently and with more administrative finesse than the Georgians at the Carter White House manage. But the fact remains that four years after his nomination Mr. Carter has emerged as a man of the center, hence deprived of the popularity which a faction leader earns, but entitled to be regarded as the enemy of none of the great main constituencies which make up the US population.

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