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Julian E. Zelizer

Julian E. Zelizer

Posted: October 27, 2008 05:29 PM

Jimmy Carter's Big Management Mistake


In business and government, executives benefit from nurturing strong constituencies so that when times get rough they have enough support to carry them through. This is an obvious point, but it is a lesson too often forgotten, even by U.S. Presidents. Jimmy Carter is a case in point, a powerful reminder as to how strong leadership and political skill are insufficient to sustaining a chief executive over the long term.

When Jimmy Carter was elected in 1976, he proved to be a masterful campaigner. Instead of courting the party establishment, Carter ran as an outsider, capitalizing on the post-Watergate mood of the nation. He defeated more established opponents like Senators Scoop Jackson and Representative Morris Udall, by mastering the caucus and primary process. For example, he poured enormous resources into the previously inconsequential Iowa Caucus in order to get an early win and generate more favorable press coverage. He also developed very strong ties to the news media, realizing that in the reformed nomination process they would be the real gatekeepers to victory rather than party leaders.

During his first year as president, Carter experienced some success. Seeking to push the Democratic Party in new directions, Carter promoted legislation on areas such as human rights that had not received much attention. He demonstrated his political skill by pushing through the Senate treaties that gave control over the Panama Canals back to the Panamanians. Though conservative activists strongly opposed the measure and mounted an aggressive lobby to defeat the treaties, Carter met one-on-one with key legislators and held conferences with local political leaders to build enough support to ratify the treaties.

But Carter never did a very good job at building strong constituencies that would last over the course of his presidency. His most important failure came with the Democratic Congress. From the start of his time in the White House, Democratic legislators were nervous about Carter; few of them had worked with him, and he had little interaction with party leaders. His legislative liaison, Frank Moore, did a terrible job making the situation any better. There were numerous mistakes, from failing to give Speaker Tip O'Neill sufficient tickets for the inauguration to failing to inform legislators in advance of presidential trips to their district and attacking spending provisions in legislation that congressmen depended on.

When times became more difficult for the administration in 1979 and 1980 as a result of the Iranian Hostage Crisis, the OPEC embargo and the deteriorating condition of the economy, Carter found himself without much support. By 1979, he had little success convincing Congress to pass his legislation. During the 1980 Democratic primaries, Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy mounted a sharp challenge, attracting the support of traditional Democratic constituencies who were unhappy with the president. While Carter overcame the challenge, the primary was immensely damaging, dividing the Democratic Party in irreparable fashion. In November, Ronald Reagan won the election and the vote of many Democrats.

Jimmy Carter found that all the political skill and savvy in the world did not compensate for lacking strong constituencies. There were moments when this shortcoming did not matter, particularly when he still could rely on the momentum of his election. But as times become rougher, lacking coalitions was devastating.

This post originally appeared in the Harvard Business Review Online.

Julian E. Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School. He is the co-editor of "Rightward Bound: Making America Conservative in the 1970s" (Harvard University Press) and is completing a book on the history of national security politics since World War II. Zelizer is a regular contributor to the Huffington Post, Politico, and the Washington Independent.