Public Opinion and the Contradictions of Jimmy Carter's Foreign Policy

By Katz, Andrew Z. | Presidential Studies Quarterly, December 2000 | Go to article overview

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]

TABLE 1

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. … 

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