Is Joe Biden really the 21st century Jimmy Carter?

Or is it simply too early to tell?

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 to the screams of a vocal minority."


A year later, Kennedy would give Nixon an autographed copy of his book. "Your book is first on my list and I am looking forward to reading it with great pleasure and interest," Nixon wrote to Kennedy in thanks.


Come 1967, union leader George Meany was asserting that unionists such as himself who supported the Vietnam War were "the vast, silent majority in the nation" and the term was then widely popularised by Nixon two years later in a televised address.


Against the backdrop of the October Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam, Nixon went on national television on 3 November 1969 to deliver a speech, during which he outlined his "plan to end the war" in Vietnam. Nixon concluded the speech by asking the public to support his policy of winning "peace with honour" in Vietnam. "And so tonight, to you, the great silent majority of my fellow Americans, I ask for your support," Nixon intoned during the speech with great solemnity. "Let us be united for peace. Let us be united against defeat. Because let us understand: North Vietnam cannot defeat or humiliate the United States. Only Americans can do that."


The public reaction to the speech was enthusiastic, with the White House telephone lines overwhelmed with callers congratulating the president on his speech. Nixon's approval ratings, which had been hovering around 50% before the speech, rose rapidly to 81% (and as high as 86% in the South) following it.


Beyond concerns about Vietnam, the "silent majority" is also assumed to have shared Nixon's concerns that normalcy was being eroded by changes in society championed by intellectuals, cosmopolitans, professionals and liberals; the "Metropolitan Liberal Elites", particularly those active in the media and academia, later so pointedly criticised by Trump and his supporters during the 2016 US general election.


From his high polling in 1972, Nixon would be forced from office two years later by the Watergate scandal, the origins of which stem from the Nixon administration's attempts to cover up its involvement in break-ins at the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate building.


After the break-ins, five perpetrators were arrested and the Justice Department then connected the cash found on the burglars to the Nixon re-election campaign committee.


A decisive role was played in bringing the Watergate macerations to the attention of the public by the media, and particularly by The Washington Post reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. The resulting Senate Watergate hearings were also broadcast by PBS and attracted huge public interest.


During the hearings, witnesses testified that the president had approved plans to cover up the administration’s involvement in the break-in and that there was a voice-activated taping system in the Oval Office. The US Supreme Court ruled that Nixon should release these tapes to government investigators, which then revealed that Nixon had conspired to cover up what took place after the break-in, and attempted to use federal officials to deflect the investigation itself.


Against this backdrop, the House Judiciary Committee approved articles of impeachment against Nixon for obstruction of justice, abuse of power and contempt of Congress, leading directly to Nixon’s resignation from office on 9 August 1974.


But it was the crucial connection between the break-in and the re-election committee, as highlighted by the media, and in particular by The Washington Post (as well as Time and The New York Times) which brought the scandal to the attention of the public. In some ways, it can also be argued that Woodward and Bernstein, together with their associates in the US mainstream media, fitted the characterisation of the Metropolitan Liberal Elite that Nixon had rallied his supporters against two years earlier.


By the time of Watergate, public distrust of the media polled at more than 40% in the US. Compare this with what was one of the defining characteristics of the Trump presidency, the deterioration of the relationship of the Trump White House with the same mainstream media (by this point termed "corporate media" by conservative critics), identified as being primarily The Washington Post (owned by Amazon founder Steve Bezos), The New York Times, (M)NBC, CBS, ABC and NPR, as well as Big Tech in the form of Apple, Google, Amazon, Facebook and Twitter, which have all grown in power over the past ten years.


Big Tech during the 2020 US general election was particularly criticised by conservatives for appearing to take on an editorial/publisher role, with critics pointing to censorship of Hunter Biden scandal during the election (particularly on Twitter, which blocked links to New York Post’s coverage of this story), the bringing down of conservative-favoured social media platform Parler (by Apple, Google and Amazon, which all withdraw access and services to the social media platform) and Trump’s acrimonious relationship with Facebook and Twitter before he was banned from both networks following the storming of the US Congress by Trump supporters on 6 January 2021.


And it is not just in the US that public confidence in mainstream media has deteriorated since the 1970s. According to The Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism 2020 Report, public trust in media has also collapsed in the UK, with only 28% of people saying they trust "most news most of the time", according to a Reuters poll in January of that year (down from 40% in January 2019).


This Reuters report also found that overall trust in the media has continued to fall on a global scale. Across all 40 countries involved in the Reuters research, 38% of respondents said they trust "most news most of the time" (a fall of four percentage points since 2019), with an overall sample size of 80,155 adults and around 2,000 taking part in each country polled. Subsequent Reuters polling shows that the Covid-19 pandemic temporarily saw increased trust in mainstream news media in the early stages of lockdown, but that this fell back as the pandemic continued.


In addition, on 13 January 2021, an Edelman Trust Barometer poll revealed that business had replaced government as the most trusted institution by respondents and was seen by half of those polled as twice as competent. An Edelman Trust post-US 2020 election poll also found that the majority of Americans believed the country was in the midst of a cold civil war, with a majority of respondents stating that they believed government leaders (57%), business leaders (56%) and journalists (59%) are purposely trying to mislead people by saying things they know to be false.


Trust in all news sources had also fallen according to this poll to record lows, with social media (35%) and owned media (41%) being the least trusted; while traditional media (53%) saw the largest drop in trust at eight percentage points. In addition, the December 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer Post-US Election Flash Poll found a 39 point gap in trust demonstrated in media between Biden voters (57%) and Trump voters (18%).


"This is the era of information bankruptcy," according to Richard Edelman, CEO of Edelman. "We’ve been lied to by those in charge, and media sources are seen as politicised and bias. The result is a lack of quality information and increased divisiveness.


"Fifty-seven per cent of Americans find the political and ideological polarisation so extreme that they believe the US is in the midst of a cold civil war," Edelman continues. "The violent storming of the US Capitol and the fact that only one-third of people are willing to get a Covid vaccine as soon as possible crystallise the dangers of misinformation."


Back in the mid-70s, and at the height of the Watergate scandal, Nixon and his supporters accused the media of making "wild accusations", putting too much emphasis on the Watergate story and having a liberal bias against the Nixon Administration. Nixon would also argue later, in a May 1974 interview with Baruch Korff, that if he had followed the liberal policies that he thought the media preferred, "Watergate would have been a blip."


Against this backdrop, and the subsequent presidency of former Nixon Vice-President Gerald Ford (who went on to pardon Nixon whilst in office), Carter appeared to be an unsullied candidate outside of the Washington political establishment, offering a fresh start after the controversies of the Nixon era.


Carter, who had previously served as a Georgia State Senator between 1963 to 1967, and as governor of Georgia between 1971 to 1975, was little known outside of his home state when coming into the 1976 campaign. His eventual percentage of the vote during the election was 50.1% against Gerald Ford’s 48% (compare this to the margin of Joe Biden over Donald Trump in 2020 of 51.3% to Trump’s 46.9%).


Prior to the 1976 election, Ford had experienced a mixed tenure as President, dealing with an oil shock and US disengagement in Vietnam, as well as the Watergate backwash, and had also developed a characterisation in the media as being clumsy and accident-prone (something not helped when he fell down aircraft steps, as captured and then shown repeatedly on network television).



Biden would, in the latter stages of his first 100 days, begin to suffer a similar characterisation away from network television coverage (only this time falling up rather than down aircraft steps).



In his first 100 days in 1977, quickly moving to distance himself from the previous Nixon and Ford administrations, Carter launched a national energy policy that included energy co