Jimmy Carter: Why He Failed

January 21, 2000

Editor’s Note: Following is a column Mr. Hess wrote in June 1978, when Jimmy Carter was just midway through his term. We think it’s worth reprinting. It shows how early Carter’s flaws became apparent to eagle-eyed pundits like Mr. Hess.

Let us assume that Jimmy Carter is an intelligent, decent, hardworking man. Assume, moreover, that he has appointed to his cabinet and sub-cabinet many men and women who are experienced and dedicated. How, then, can a president—certainly no less mentally alert than most past presidents—with many advisers of high caliber, produce such an undistinguished presidency?

It’s a puzzlement. And it cannot be accounted for by most of the explanations currently in vogue, such as: Carter’s an outsider who really doesn’t understand the levers of national governance; or Carter surrounds himself with a “Georgia Mafia” whose weaknesses are the same as his own; or Carter is a bad manager who hasn’t been able to sort out decisions that a president must make from those that should be settled at lower levels; or Congress is so uncontrollable that it will not allow any president to exercise the reins of leadership; or the bureaucracy has grown beyond the span of presidential control; or many of the nation’s problem’s are highly intractable; or even all these reasons taken together—although there is truth in all.

I would like to put forward another theory: The root of the problem is that Jimmy Carter is the first Process President in American history.

“Process President”—using a definition by Aaron Wildavsky and Jack Knott—means that Carter places “greater emphasis on methods, procedures and instruments for making policy than on the content of policy itself.”

Carter is an activist. He wants to do things. Yet his campaign statements should have warned us that save for the human rights thrust in foreign policy, his passion in government is for how things are done, rather than what should be done.

He believes that if the process is good the product will be good. In other words, if he sets up a procedure for making policy that is open, comprehensive (his favorite word), and involves good people, whatever comes out of this pipeline will be acceptable (within certain budgetary limits).

A concern for process is not a bad thing. Some past presidents made a fetish of chaos in policy development, often resulting in proposals that had not been fully explored.

But process is only a tool for getting from here to there—it is not a substitute for substance. And good processes can produce conflicting, competing and confusing programs.


When a president lacks an overriding design for what he wants government to do, his department chiefs are forced to prepare presidential options in a vacuum. Usually this is done by BOGSAT—the acronym for a “bunch of guys sitting around a table.” In other cases, where political executives have not been given some framework in which to function, they will try to impose their own hidden agendas on the president.

Each departmental proposal—whether for welfare reform or tax reform—may or may not be “right,” but there is no reason to expect that automatically it will fall in place with what other departments will be proposing. Ironically, Carter’s procedures assure, by definition, that he cannot deal with the nation’s ills comprehensively.

Political executives and high level civil servants prefer to be loyal to a president. If direction is forthcoming, they will try—successfully or not—to honor a president’s wishes. When direction is not present, they will go into business for themselves.

The Carter presidency cannot be described—as was sometimes true of past administrations—in terms of White House loyalists versus cabinet department disloyalists. Today neither White House staff nor cabinet officials have been given the predictive capacity that they must have to do their jobs properly. A subordinate—even on the cabinet level—has to be able to plan on the basis of some past pattern.

Take government reorganization policy. Some of Carter’s actions support the concept of centralization (energy); some support the concept of decentralization (education). On what basis is an administration planner to design the next reorganization?

Uncertainty radiating from the top, furthermore, lowers morale throughout the permanent government, hence it adversely affects the implementation of programs. While the bureaucracy may be the butt of jokes, it is also the motor force that provides services on a day-to-day basis—and it too looks for consistent signs from a president.

American presidents have not been ideologues. And it is certainly not my notion that Carter should become one. But all modern presidents, whether “liberal” or “conservative”—no matter what their other faults—have had some programmatic view of government in which the specific parts usually could be fitted. This is not the case with Carter’s domestic program, although he does seem to have a firmer view of defense policy (perhaps because of his naval background).

So the basic problem of this administration will not be corrected by rearranging boxes on organization charts or by doing a better selling job to Congress and the public.

What has produced an undistinguished presidency? Jimmy Carter’s failure to set consistent policy goals—or more grandly, a philosophy for government.