What Joe Biden learned from Jimmy Carter

Jon Ward
·Chief National Correspondent
·4-min read
Jimmy Carter and Joe Biden
President Jimmy Carter with Sen. Joe Biden in 1978. (Barry Thumma/AP)

Over the course of his long political career, two presidents have shaped the way Joe Biden thinks about a conundrum every commander in chief must face: How do you get credit for your successes?

His conclusion is simple: You need to claim your victories, and not just quietly or occasionally. You have to talk about what you’ve done and how it’s helped people, over and over again, in every public situation imaginable.

It’s a lesson he learned from watching two Democratic presidents he’s seen up close: Barack Obama and Jimmy Carter, the latter of whom he visited Thursday in Georgia.

And it’s shaping the way Biden is looking to make Americans aware of the ways in which the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill he signed in March is affecting their lives.

When he was elected vice president in the wake of the middle of a financial crisis, he watched Republicans claim credit for the ensuing economic recovery. But Biden felt it was Obama who deserved the praise — not the stubborn GOP lawmakers who stood in the way of the Democrats’ 2009 Recovery Act.

Biden expressed frustration in a 2015 interview that, among the Democrats lining up to run in 2016, including former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, “none of these guys are going to run on a third term of Obama.”

“If I were to run, that’s what I’d run, that’s what the party should be,” he said. “We got it right.”

And he said at the time that he’d watched another president not get due credit for his accomplishments: Carter, a Georgia governor who was elected as an outsider president in 1976, only four years after Biden was elected to the Senate.

“Carter lost the high ground on issues relating to what he did on foreign policy, what he did on his response to energy,” Biden said in 2015.

Anwar Sadat, Jimmy Carter, and Menachem Begin
From left, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, President Jimmy Carter and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin at Camp David, Md., on Sept. 6, 1978. (White House via AP)

“Here’s our mistake, and Carter’s mistake, is that we did not go out and constantly remake the case about what we did, why it was so successful,” Biden said of the Obama administration. “What happens is, now everybody thinks the Recovery Act was successful, but it was declared a disaster when we were doing it by the press and everybody else.”

Biden’s meeting with Carter on Thursday was held in private, without any reporters present, at the former president’s residence in Plains, Ga.

But Biden and Carter have a long history. When Carter decided to run for president in 1976, Biden was the first senator to endorse him.

Biden said in 2015 that he endorsed Carter because he felt the more liberal wing of the Democratic Party was taking it “in a direction that wasn't salable and sustainable.”

“We had to do something to move beyond a rehash of the New Deal to make them care. Carter had a perspective more in line with mine. It had less to do with being moderate than it had to do with common sense,” he said.

Four years later, he told Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., that he should not run for president and challenge Carter, who was seeking reelection, in a Democratic primary.

“Kennedy was one of my closest friends. My talk with Teddy was, ‘Teddy, I love you, but this isn't going to work. This is not going to work. You beat Carter, you ain’t going to win the presidency. This is going to split the party,’” Biden said in the 2015 interview.

Kennedy didn’t listen to Biden, but Biden turned out to be right. Kennedy’s run for president failed, and it did divide the Democratic Party for years.

Jimmy Carter and Edward Kennedy
Carter with Sen. Ted Kennedy at the 1980 Democratic National Convention. (Bob Daugherty/AP)

Carter is now 96 years old, the longest-living U.S. president in the nation’s history. He and his wife, Rosalynn, 93, have both been vaccinated and are back to attending their local church, Maranatha Baptist.

But Carter’s abilities to speak and hear are diminishing, according to biographer Jonathan Alter, who said part of the reason for Biden’s visit to Plains may have been to see Carter for the last time. Carter’s vice president, former Minnesota Sen. Walter Mondale, died last week at 93.

Carter was not able to come to Biden's inauguration due to the coronavirus pandemic. And so this is the first and maybe only time that Biden will see his old friend as the sitting U.S. president.

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