Jimmy Carter will get his mid-term report card from the voters this November. They will elect 435 representatives, 34 senators and 35 governors. The president himself is not running for re-election, but White House insiders tell us he intends to play an active role in this year's electioneering. He is preparing to make stump appearences for Democratic candidates around the country. But a number of incumbent congressmen aren't sure they want him around their necks, for the opinion polls show him in decline.
Nonetheless, Carter is calmly confident that he can work the campaign magic on behalf of his party this year. According to the confidential minutes of a recent Cabinet session, he said he "continues to feel confident."
He recited the "many troublesome issues" that plague his administration - his energy bill stalled in Congress, his tax reforms under attack from all sides, inflation spiralling upward, the value of the dollar trumbling, a Soviet-Cuban-Ethiopian alliance threatening the African Horn. But he noted that "we have made substantial progress in others."
He recognized inflation as "a serious problem" politically and suggested that the Cabinet's special Economic Policy Group "should reassess the situation." Still, he insisted that "our economy is basically sound, and our country is strong." He ended the discussion by professing trust in the "tremendous, unshakeable strength of our people."
Carter is likely to sound the same faith-in America theme when he goes to the hustings. His smiling confidence is echoed by the White House inner circle, despite press critism and republican jabs. "The issues that have Washington enraptured, like the Panama Canal, are not of concern to most voters," one told us. "Social Security is not a big item in the countryside."
The political adviser admitted the White House is worried about inflation, which, he said, "could kill us this year if it keeps getting worse." Another strategist said the president will emphasize the accomplishments of his administration: "It's not Carter's style to attack the Republicans, but he will stress our strong points and avoid our weak points. You don't win elections by being defensive."
The Carter political circle believes that he retains his personal popularity with the people and that his unassuming, man-in-the-street approach will off-set the present downward rating trend. But some Democrats in Congress aren't quite so convinced. "My chances for re-elections don't depend on whether I snuggle up to the president," said a northeastern House member who ran 14 percentage points ahead of Carter in 1976. "I defend his actions only if I think they make sense. And some of the younger members may dissociate themselves from Carter by openly attacking the administration."
The president's western swing this month may provide a litmus test of his ability to recoup his political prestige. His popularity there is low, particularly because he came out against futher federal spending for some water projects. "The way for local politicians to get on the frontt page is to attack the president," one Western congressman told our associate Howie Kurtz. "They think Carter doesn't like the West."
In other geographical areas as well, Democrats up for election aren't sure they want to grasp Carter's coattails. "His image is not strong and consistents," said an incumbents. "We've built up our own constituencies, and we disagree with him on many issues."
On the other hand, there are Democrats who welcome Carter's help. But a surprising number quietly would prefer to have Vice President Walter Mondale campaign for them. They tell us he is more popular than Carter in many areas.
Political pros from both parties agree that the Democrats are handicapped in most districts by a financial disadvantage. "We're in tough shape financially," one Democratic Party official confessed. The White House congressional liaison office of Frank Moore has been flooded with requests that administration officials be sent from Washington for fund-raising campaigns.
Realistically, Carter and his tacticians foresee losses this November, but they don't think the blame will be placed on he White House doorstep. "The president's popularity, good or bad, has far less impact on individual races than it did 10 years ago," and adviser summarized. "The mood of the country is not very involved in national affairs. It's a very quite time."
Those who see Carter daily at the White House report him in good spirits, with no signs of inner wear and tear. He accepts his present difficulties philosophically as part of the job and believes that, come November, he'll pass his big mid-term test.