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


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).



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."(e) August 6-15, 1976 46 21 December 1976-January 1977 52 22 April 3-11, 1977 60 27 July 1977 60 30 August-September 1977 51 29 May 1979 56 33 (a.) The source is the Gallup Opinion Index (March 1978, 18, no. 152; February 1980, 15, no. 175; September 1980, 39, no. 181).

(b.) This question began, "President Carter has two main jobs, one concerns the problems outside this country, the other concerns problems here in the United States."

(c.) The source is CBS News/New York Times, Roper Center for Public Opinion Research.

(d.) These questions were phrased, "How about foreign policy? Do You approve or disapprove of the way Jimmy Carter is handling foreign policy?"

(e.) The source is Jimmy Carter Library, Chief of Staff Jordan, Box 33, Caddell, [Patrick] [3] folder, Memo from Caddell to Carter, November 6, 1979, "Recent Polls and Implications for Strategy."

Why this disjunction between support for individual policies and lack of public approval for Carter's foreign policy stewardship? I propose the answer lies in the Carter administration's mistaken assumption that public opinion on foreign policy was grounded in emotions and malleable to presidential leadership. Although on the surface public opinion appeared contradictory, in reality, aggregate public attitudes on foreign policy were stable and coherent. So, despite Carter's declaration that he would pursue a foreign policy the people would approve of, his polling operation never provided him with an accurate interpretation of contradictory public preferences, or the means by which to build public support for his policies.

To locate the root cause of Carter's foreign policy troubles, and advance our understanding of the public opinion-foreign policy relationship, I follow the advice of Holsti (1992, 1996) and Jacobs and Shapiro (1994), and examine the archival record.(3) By doing so, I improve our understanding of how policy makers respond to public opinion (Glynn et al. 1999). I incorporate documentary evidence of Carter's use of polls on two central tenets of his foreign policy: human rights and U.S.-Soviet relations. Thus, I help unlock the paradox described by Kaufman (1993), and place Carter's difficulties in gaining public support in the context of his incomplete understanding of post-Vietnam public opinion.

I begin with an overview of Carter's place in our understanding of public opinion and foreign policy. I then survey evaluations of the causes of Carter's foreign policy failures. Case studies of Carter's human rights and Soviet policies follow. I examine the White House effort to understand the relationship between these policies and public opinion. I explore how the administration's assumptions about the nature of public opinion informed White House policy deliberations. In both instances, the White House reading of polls was colored by the presumption that public opinion was more emotional than rational, not grounded in beliefs, and more easily managed by presidential leadership than post-Vietnam reality dictated. These cases illuminate how the administration was blinded by the surface contradictions in public opinion and, owing to a failure to explore them, deprived itself of the opportunity to present these policies as complementary to the American people.

Carter and Public Opinion

The Carter years mark a transitional period in our understanding of the role of public opinion in foreign policy formulation. Before Carter's presidency, scholars and policy makers viewed public opinion on foreign policy as volatile and emotional, not rational and events driven. The so-called Almond-Lippmann consensus held that public opinion on foreign policy was unstable, incoherent, and largely irrelevant to policy makers (Holsti 1992, 1996). Holsti introduced these seminal writers to symbolize the empirical and normative halves of the top-down model of foreign policy formulation. On one hand, foreign policy elites such as Lippmann considered the public too emotional and ignorant to have a role in foreign policy formulation (see also Cohen 1973). At the same time, analyses of survey research data failed to uncover any coherence, or structure, to public foreign policy attitudes. Moreover, there was scant evidence that public opinion mattered in the foreign policy formulation process. Thus, a normative preference for a top-down or elitist model of foreign policy formulation was sustained by empirical evidence that dismissed the stability, coherence, and impact of public opinion on external affairs (for reviews, see Holsti 1992, 1996; Graham 1994; Powlick and Katz 1998).

The transition to a revised understanding of the public opinion-foreign policy relationship can be traced to the work of Mueller (1973). Mueller was skeptical of the public's foreign policy knowledge and proposed that the public relied on the simplest of cues, such as the position of elites, in forming opinions. According to Mueller, public opinion on war and foreign policy largely reflected either followership or partisanship; under these top-down variants, public disapproval would "follow" declaration by government officials or other prominent elites that current policy was misguided, as occurred in 1968 when President Lyndon Johnson, as well as the Democratic and Republican parties, rejected the escalatory policy in Vietnam. In addition, Mueller introduced the "believer mentality." In contrast to followers and partisans, believers "arrive at their position on an issue by applying a set of pre-established beliefs to it" (p. 140). Here, cues based on liberal or conservative ideology, or one's belief in the efficacy of the use of force, activate public attitudes. In other words, for this undefined portion of the public, opinions on foreign policy would be based on a coherent belief structure. Along with his finding that public opinion on war was correlated with casualty rates, Mueller's articulation of the believer mentality offered the only hint of a forthcoming revision to the top-down model. Therefore, while Mueller suggested some ability on the part of the public to react rationally to real-world events, prevailing wisdom at the time of Carter's election did not accord much weight to citizen preferences in foreign policy formulation.

Carter did not share the distrust of the public central to the top-down model. He praised "the good sense of [the] American people," and proclaimed a willingness to "let them share in the process of making foreign policy decisions" (Carter 1977, 956). Carter criticized the tendency among elites to "underestimate the competence and intelligence and sound judgment of the American people" (cited in Melanson 1996, 91). Despite Carter's commitment to pursue a more democratic foreign policy, given the extant academic literature...

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