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Barack Obama, Jimmy Carter, and America’s “Crisis in Spirit”

I’ve certainly had my run-ins with Joe Klein in recent years. But this story, written after a four-week road trip across America, is worth reading. “Topic A is the growing sense that our best days as a nation are behind us,” Klein writes, “that our kids won’t live as well as we did, that China is in the driver’s seat. … I found the same themes dominant everywhere — a rethinking of basic assumptions, a moment of national introspection.”

The reasons for this anxiety and national introspection are complicated — based in part, but certainly not solely, on the failure of our political class. Yet in the coming years, this cast of mind is going to frame politics in America, much like Jimmy Carter’s “crisis of spirit” speech framed politics at the end of the 1970s. On July 15, 1979, Carter gave his most memorable, and disastrous, speech – declaring, in part, this:

But after listening to the American people I have been reminded again that all the legislation in the world can’t fix what’s wrong with America. So, I want to speak to you first tonight about a subject even more serious than energy or inflation. 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. It is a crisis that strikes at the very heart and soul and spirit of our national will. We can see this crisis in the growing doubt about the meaning of our own lives and in the loss of a unity of purpose for our Nation.

The erosion of our confidence in the future is threatening to destroy the social and the political fabric of America.

In the end, the public will (rightfully) insist that its political leaders not simply diagnosis such problems, but do something to solve them. Ronald Reagan did this for the country as a whole, which is one reason he’s now widely seen as having been a great president. On a smaller scale, Rudy Giuliani could have lamented the desiccated state of New York City when he became mayor. Instead, he took steps to repair it. The result was a better, stronger, prouder city. New York became great again.

So far, President Obama has fallen terribly short of what the citizenry expects of him. He has contributed rather than ameliorated the anxieties and concerns people have. His policies, especially on the economy, are holding us down. Mr. Obama doesn’t seem able to tap into America’s remarkable strengths, spirit, and resilience, which are unique in the world and virtually unmatched in history. Indeed, in some deep way, he doesn’t even seem to recognize them and can therefore hardly acknowledge them.

If the president doesn’t correct these things relatively soon – if this “crisis of confidence” continues to spread and the president seems impotent to deal with the problems we face – then Barack Obama will share a fate similar to that of Jimmy Carter.


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