President Carter leaves today for an economic summit conference in Europe armed with arguments that the United States has more than lived up to its commitments to its industrial allies.
Although still beleaguered by the failure to win enactment of his national energy legislation, the president and other officials have made it clear that they are preparing to counter expected attempts by European and Japanese leaders to, in the words of one White House official, "put us on the defensive on energy while they cloud over their own failures" to meet economic commitments.
In an interview with two German television networks released yesterday by the White House, the president gave a preview of what is expected to be the dominant American line when he meets Sunday and Monday in Bonn with the leaders of West Germany, France, Britain, Italy, Canada and Japan.
"We have maintained and reached our goal of sustained economic growth in our country," he said. "Other nations, Japan and Germany, have not been so successful."
Moreover, Carter argued in the interview, the United States, as it promised at the last economic summit, has reduced its oil imports, albeit by modest amounts, and still expects passage of the energy legislation.
He also said that manufactured goods, not oil imports, are the largest factor in the country's trade deficit, an argument he is sure to use in Bonn.
Whether the president will be able to sell these arguments to the others, especially West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, the most skeptical of the European leaders, remains a major question hanging over the summit.
Energy policy, and specifically the continued high level of U.S. oil imports, with its impact on the sagging value of the dollar, are of growing concern to the Europeans and Japanese and are certain to be a dominant topic at the summit.
The president will precede the summit with a two-day state visit to Germany during which he will hold talks with Schmidt, inspect German and American troops, visit the Berlin Wall and conduct the first "town meeting" by an American president in a foreign country.
Fourteen months ago, when Carter attended his first economic summit, in London, the circumstances were quite different. He was then the newest leader of the industrialized democracies, a subject of curiosity and hope in Europe both to the general populace and its elected leaders. By all accounts, he hit it off well with his summit counterparts in London and left Europe after a five-day stay to glowing reviews in the press and the population generally.
But the intervening months have been no more kind to the president's image in Europe than they have been at home. Curiosity has been replaced by doubt about the direction and capabilities of the new not-so-new administration in Washington.
As one example of this, when Carter steps off Air Force One at the Cologne-Bonn airport tonight, Soviet-American relations will be at their lowest point in years. The trials of dissident Anatoly Scharansky and Alexander Ginzburg will be going on, with verdicts in the cases possibly coming while Carter is in Western Europe.
The president will be under pressure to react immediately with words and deeds, another unsettling prospect in Europe, where the massed forces of the Warsaw Pact to the east make the ebbs and flows in East-West relations of paramount concern.
The domestic and foreign doubts about Carter's leadership have not escaped notice in the White House. On the eve of today's trip there was a story circulating in Washington, attributed to Gerald Rafshoon, the president's new communications adviser, that Carter planned to cancel his visit to the Berlin Wall, where John F. Kennedy made his famous "Ich binein Berliner" speech.
Instead, so the story went, the president would go only to Frankfurt, where he would declare to the assembled townspeople, "Ich bin ein Frankfurter."
It is doubtful the Europeans will find much to laugh at in the image of ineptness the story suggests. Schmidt, for one, supported by the Japanese, is expected to press Carter for some concrete action on energy, perhaps the most visible symbol of the administration's inability to get its way with Congress.
Specifically, the Germans want the president to promise in Bonn that he will impose higher import fees or quotas to drive up the prices of oil should Congress fail to enact the energy legislation.
Carter's interview with the German television network suggested that he is prepared to resist such pressure, or at least to try the Germans of accelerated economic expansion and a pledge from the Japanese to reduce their substantial trade surplus.
As Carter prepared to leave for Bonn, pressure was mounted on the other side in the form of a letter from 25 senators urging a conference committee to retain a Senate-passed ban on high import feees in a pending appropriations bill.