Public Opinion and the Contradictions of Jimmy Carter's Foreign Policy
Katz, Andrew Z., Presidential Studies Quarterly
One of President Jimmy Carter's more memorable promises was to conduct a foreign policy "that the American people both support ... and know about and understand" (Carter 1977, 955). Ironically, Carter's foreign policy was neither supported nor understood by much of the public.(1) What explains the inability of Carter to build popular support for his foreign policy? Contrary to widespread perception, Carter's difficulties with public opinion were not caused by his inattention to public opinion polls or ineptitude in public relations. Rather, I argue that Carter's inability to gain popular approval for his foreign policy resulted from a misinterpretation of the nature of post-Vietnam War (hereafter post-Vietnam) public opinion. The conventional understanding of the public opinion-foreign policy relationship prior to the Carter administration was that &e president could lead public opinion through the use of the bully pulpit, for example. One key problem for Carter was that presidential leadership of public opinion had become problematic owing to the breakdown of elite consensus on foreign policy and greater public awareness of foreign policy issues.
By any measure, Carter was an unpopular president. His average presidential approval rating in the Gallup poll was 47 percent, lower than all his predecessors since Harry Truman.(2) On foreign policy, some specific initiatives of Carter's earned high marks, but the public did not offer a ringing endorsement of his overall handling of international affairs. Figure 1 charts approval for Carter's foreign policy in the CBS News/New York Times Poll. The only time a majority of those surveyed approved of Carter's handling of foreign policy was in the wake of the Camp David accords in September 1978. (A compendium of polls on Carter's foreign policy appears in Table 1.) Yet, even in February 1979, as Carter's foreign policy approval was declining, Roberts's (1979) analysis of the latest CBS News/New York Times Poll found that "few Americans disagree with his policy of restraint on key foreign issues" (p. 4). Similarly, Kaufman (1993) considered it a paradox that while many Americans "did not fault Carter on any specific issue ... their overall assessment was negative" (p. 151).
[Figure 1 ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]
Public Support (in percentages) for President Carter's Handling of Foreign Policy
No Approve Disapprove Opinion "Do you approve or disapprove of the way Carter is handling our foreign policy, that is, our relations with other nations?"(a) July 1977 49 32 19 February 1980(b) 53 40 7 September 1980 33 60 7 "How about his handling of foreign policy? Do you approve or disapprove of the way Carter is handling foreign policy?"(c) April 1977(d) 42 25 33 January 1978 48 33 19 April 1978 39 40 21 June 1978 29 48 23 September 1978 54 27 20 December 1978 41 39 20 January 1979 34 47 19 February 1979(d) 30 54 16 March 1979(d) 45 43 12 June 1979 36 46 18 November 1979 28 53 19 January 1980 45 41 14 February 1980 48 35 17 March 1980 34 52 14 April 1980 31 60 9 June 1980 20 68 12 August 1980(d) 18 67 15 Agree Disagree "President Jimmy Carter has shown the ability to deal effectively with foreign affairs. …