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Is Joe Biden really the 21st century Jimmy Carter?

Only time will tell if Joe Biden can recover from the Afghanistan crisis and surprise his critics next year, as Carter did in 1978.

Joe Biden.
Joe Biden, a politician in the spotlight.

As US President Joe Biden finished his first hundred days in office, critics, mainly on the Right, began to formulate opprobrium of the president, claiming that he was morphing into a kind of modern-day Jimmy Carter, with the country descending into a chaotic repeat of the late 1970s, this time under Biden’s leadership.

It is a charge which has served to unite a Republican Party disorientated by four years of Donald Trump as President and a 2020 general election that was fractious and controversial both in delivery and outcome. Fox News, the US’s most popular rolling news station, is a key player in the political battles between Left and Right in the States and has recently made a repeated criticism along the "Biden is Carter" line, as well as drawing parallels with the experience of the country in the late 1970s.

And this before the recent Afghanistan crisis and the questions it has generated on the Left and Right about Biden’s competence in office.

But how accurate is this characterisation, particularly as Joe Biden is so early into his presidency, and perhaps more importantly, how similar are the historical circumstances as a backdrop to each presidential term?

Democratic President Carter came to power in 1976, somewhat as a rejection on the part of the electorate to the controversial Nixon presidency of 1972 to 1974 and his successor in office (and former Vice President) Gerald Ford. Prior to Carter coming to power, the Democrats had struggled against the Republicans since the crisis of Vietnam engulfed the Democratic party, particularly because Vietnam had been a foreign policy failure on the part of the previous Democratic administration under Lyndon B. Johnson.

In 1968, with the Vietnam War at its height, Richard Nixon beat Democratic candidate Hubert Humphrey by a slim margin, after Johnson declined to seek re-election. The election took place against the backdrop of the Tet Offensive, the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy and violent protests outside the Chicago Democratic National Convention, during which Humphrey won the Democratic candidacy.

As well as Nixon becoming president that year, the Republican Party also picked up seats in the House and Senate in the general election. Four years later, Nixon would improve on this performance by winning the 1972 election in a landslide, which was an even bigger shock for the divided Democratic Party than its previous close election defeat.

Beating Democratic candidate George McGovern in 1972, Nixon took nearly 61% of the popular vote, with the Republican Party picking up seats in the House (though the Democratic Party managed to retain control of Congress). It was also in this election that Joe Biden first won election to the United States Senate (in itself a sobering sign of how long the current president had been active in professional politics).

By 1972 public support for US involvement in Vietnam had fallen substantially, as demonstrated by the Gallup Organisation, which indicated in its polling that prior to the Tet Offensive, most Americans were generally supportive of the US war effort.

By February 1968, the nation had already started to show signs of division over the issue, and by 1970 most Americans who responded to polling concerning Vietnam agreed that sending US troops to fight in the country was a mistake (24% thought this in 1965, 46% in 1968 and 60% in 1971).

Source: CBS/Gallup

By the time of the 1972 election, Nixon had become hugely popular with what he had by then characterised as a "silent majority" of voters. This "silent majority", in the context Nixon made popular, refers to an older generation of voters, as well as young people in the Midwest, West and the South of the US (many of whom would serve in Vietnam), as well as blue-collar and white voters who did not take an active part in politics.

As a political constituency, such voters are characterised as not expressing their opinions openly. Come 2016, the silent majority would be seen as crucial to the election of Donald Trump to the presidency, and in the UK would also come to be termed "shy Tories", as they were perceived as hiding their Conservative voting intentions from opinion pollsters.

The silent major had been speculated on for years before Nixon’s 1972 election victory. The term was employed by Calvin Coolidge's campaign during the 1920 presidential nomination and in 1955, John F. Kennedy wrote in his book Profiles in Courage, "Some of them may have been representing the actual sentiments of the silent majority of their constituents in opposition