'l am paying the price, but l am willing to do that"
These were difficult times. Yet another poll last week showed yet another drop in President Carter's popularity, with only 38% approving his performance in the White House. In official Washington, too, there was increasing skepticism about Carter's ability to govern effectively. How did the President himself feel he was faring amid these pervasive doubts about his leadership? In an exclusive interview with TIME Washington Bureau Chief Robert Ajemian, the President considered a broad range of questions and provided some illuminating insightsand some answers:
The President was having an easy day, few high-level visitors to deal with, no high-pressure meetings. During the afternoon, he stepped onto the stone terrace outside his office and sat at the round glass table where he often holds his weekly national security luncheons. It was hot and sticky, about 95°, but Carter kept his blue jacket buttoned, his red tie high on his collar. Only a few feet away his daughter Amy was taking her first diving lesson, and the sound of the slamming board passed through the hedge that enclosed the patio.
In person, Carter usually sounds more relaxed than he looks. Today his voice was soft and warm, but his eyes and manner were tense and alert. He has been going through a trying period during which he has been increasingly criticized as a leader who changes directions under fire, a man who allows too many policy voices and too many different signals to be heard. His laissez-faire style has left people uncertain about where the President stands. Lately he has been moving toward a more combative attitude.
Carter said he was undisturbed by the talk that his style was confusing. But he admitted that there was truth to the charge. "That confused image does exist," he said. "I acknowledge it." He decided at the outset of his term, he said, that the public had to be included in the decision-making process, especially after Watergate. "These tough negotiating points have never been debated in the American environment or American society before. In the long run foreign policy is more likely to be correctly determined, we are less likely to have serious mistakes, if the public is part of the process. I am paying the price for it, but I am willing to do that."
Carter believes the days of springing decisions on the public without prior warning are over. "I think it's accurate to say," he noted of an accord Gerald Ford had made with the Soviets in 1974, "that when the Vladivostok agreement was reached there was almost a dearth of news about the negotiations. Only when the final agreement was signed was it revealed. All of a sudden you had an accomplished fact. Negotiating points were never understood by the American public or the Congress."