"I want to talk to you right now about a fundamental threat to American democracy. I do not mean our political and civil liberties. They will endure. And I do not refer to the outward strength of America, a nation that is at peace tonight everywhere in the world, with unmatched economic power and military might.
"The threat is nearly invisible in ordinary ways. It is a crisis of confidence."
July 15, 1979
Sometimes it is difficult to ignore Mark Twain's still–relevant observation that history doesn't repeat itself — but it does rhyme.
Recently, Josh Lederman of the Associated Press compared Barack Obama's presidency to Jimmy Carter's when he delivered his famous "malaise" speech 35 years ago tomorrow.
As I observed five years ago, Carter never used the word malaise when he addressed the nation from the Oval Office. He spoke of a "crisis of confidence."
The Republicans used the word malaise, and it stuck. When I heard people speak of malaise, it sounded like they were describing the Carter administration, not the American people. That was an interesting spin, given that many people complained that Carter was blaming them for what was wrong.
People sneered at Carter as if he were spinning his wheels in a muddy ditch. I really got the impression that summer that the voters were concluding that they had to make a change in the White House in 1980. The guy who was in there didn't seem to get it.
And, with Obama, it is hard not to see parallels when, as Lederman writes, "both parties have essentially written off prospects for any major legislation for the remainder of Obama's presidency. Obama's attempts to circumvent Congress to get things done have drawn rebukes from the Supreme Court and a threatened lawsuit from the House, casting a bright light on the state of Washington dysfunction."
As Yogi Berra said, "It's like deja vu all over again."
This is what I think happened in 1979: Democrats couldn't believe the country would turn things over to the Republicans in the next election — less than six years after Nixon's resignation. Besides, the Republican front–runner, Ronald Reagan, would be nearly 70 by the time of the next election. Democrats either assumed — or persuaded themselves — that they would survive the 1980 elections. Many, including Carter, did not.
I've been observing American politics most of my life, and I don't fully understand the ebbs and flows of presidential popularity. It is truly a bewildering (yet fascinating) dynamic, this relationship the American people have with their presidents.
Initially, Carter's speech was a hit with the public. His message of austerity in energy consumption appeared to resonate at first, but public approval came crashing down within a few days after pundits sliced and diced it. Clearly, there was a backlash — but was it genuine or had it been manufactured?
Carter's speech, of course, was given long before the internet, even before cable was present in most American homes. There were no all–news networks and relatively few radio stations that carried straight news, let alone programs hosted by left– or right–wing ideologues. Many of the things that shape and direct the course of public opinion today did not exist in 1979.
That does seem a bit preachy, huh? I mean, he might as well have said, "You're greedy and self–centered." In many ways, I guess that was true, in some ways I guess it still is, but it's a truth that requires delicacy in the telling.
When I was growing up, I heard people who were there tell of the spirit of generosity and sacrifice that permeated Americans in the 1930s and 1940s. Maybe that's true, or maybe it was a case of folks remembering things the way they wanted to remember them and not the way they were; but if even a fraction of it was true, the Americans of that time were more generous than the Americans of the '70s and '80s — or, for that matter, the Americans of the 21st century.
Carter told people a harsh truth that many probably did not want to hear — that a way of life was at the heart of the problem — and Carter wasn't as diplomatic as he fancied himself to be. "We've learned that piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose," Carter said.
It wasn't really surprising that, when Carter wrote his presidential memoirs a few years later, he focused most of his attention on his foreign policy record in office. Other than the 14 months–plus that he spent trying to get the hostages back from Iran, his foreign policy performance included triumphs like the Camp David Accords whereas his domestic influence was summed up in the public mind by the "malaise speech."
In the long run, it might not have been any better if people had remembered it as the "crisis of confidence." Neither that nor "malaise" is a rousing endorsement of a president's stewardship.