Nation: Coming to Grips with the Job

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Indeed, Carter has learned the necessity of being flexible. He abandoned his notion of giving taxpayers a $50 rebate to stimulate the economy, explaining that improved economic conditions led to his decision, although the proposal faced possible defeat in the Senate. He decided against withdrawing U.S. troops from Korea when convinced that none of his top advisers thought it was a good idea. Perhaps his most striking metamorphosis was on the issue of defense spending. He came into office determined to cut military costs, but changed his mind. Although he dropped the B-1 bomber, he has since pushed ahead with cruise missile development and talked European allies into upgrading their theater nuclear forces. He is now pressing for the development of a new bomber incorporating the so-called stealth technology. Last December, influenced by Soviet moves in Africa, Viet Nam and Cambodia and the threat to Afghanistan, Carter came full circle and endorsed a sustained growth in defense spending. Later, when Soviet forces poured into Afghanistan, the President felt betrayed by Soviet President Leonid Brezhnev, who had pledged his peaceful intentions only six months previously at their summit in Vienna.

The transformation from an idealistic and moralizing man who had called for the total abolition of nuclear weapons in his Inaugural Address to a more hard-headed realist who better understands power and existence, the perfidy of others and the limitations of his own authority is by no means complete and may never be. Still it is the most profound change the President has undergone in this term.

Carter's men credit the change to his time in office. "There is no doubt in my mind that experience is the most priceless asset of all. Every day you do better," says White House Counsel Lloyd Cutler, the lawyer who is the only Washingtonian to have cracked the President's inner circle.

Jimmy Carter is selling experience and his hard-won realism as the best reasons for re-electing him. Says he: "I am more knowledgeable about our nation now, its strengths and its limitations, its opportunities and its problems, the relationship between the President and the administration of the Government, between the President and the Congress, between the United States and foreign leaders. Obviously three and a half years of learning under the most challenging circumstances acquaints one with the issues and prepares one to make a better judgment about what is best for our country."

Carter, of course, does have a record of some accomplishment to show for his years in office, a record he feels keenly is not sufficiently appreciated. The President is most proud of the energy program. While it is far from perfect, took him three years to put into effect and is largely a Senate product, it nonetheless is a start toward resolving what is likely to be the most critical issue facing the industrialized West during the rest of the century. The nation laughed at the moral equivalent of war, and Jimmy Cardigan quickly abandoned that unpopular rubric in late 1977. But he had his priorities right.

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