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Carter and the eroding presidency

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In the 11 weeks to Nov. 4, Jimmy Carter must labor uphill to re-elect himself. He will carry the kind of liabilities of presidential decisionmaking that forced two of his recent predecessors to leave the office prematurely and contributed to Mr. Carter's defeat of Gerald Ford in 1976.

And a negative 1980 Carter campaign strategy -- featuring an attack on the competence and judgment of Ronald Reagan -- could, in the view of presidential scholars, cost the President the public support he would need for a strong second term.

A mere anti-Reagan vote "wouldn't give Carter the popular support he would need the next four years," says one authority on the White House.

Not since Dwight Eisenhower has a president's high esteem with the people accompanied him out of office, observes Stephen Wayne, George Washington University White House expert. And Ike's high regard was based on his military leadership record during World War II, remembered as a noble period in US history.

The post-Ike presidents who could have faced re-election endured a falloff in approval their last year in office. This was the case, too, for Eisenhower's predecessor, Harry Truman.

"Eisenhower resisted the trend, remaining up on the mountain," Mr. Wayne says. "People continued to like him regardless of what happened."

Although it was widely believed that John Kennedy was headed toward a second term when he was assassinated, his successor, Lyndon Johnson, was harried into forgoing a second term.

Specific causes can be cited for the recent presidential declines. "With Johnson, it was the Vietnam war," says Democratic pollster and strategist Paul Lutzker. "With Nixon, it was Watergate. With Ford, it was the Nixon pardon. And with Carter, it's the economy."

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