Does it feel like the country is falling apart now? Thirty-two years ago today, it seemed a lot worse when President Jimmy Carter delivered his famous “malaise” speech in which he seemed to blame the country’s problems on the people rather than their leaders. While Carter didn’t actually use the word “malaise” in the speech, his deep pessimism about America and its place in the world was an apt symbol of his failed presidency, especially in light of the resurgent optimism that characterized the national spirit in the years his successor Ronald Reagan sat in the White House.
The main point of his speech was the energy crisis of 1979 and his championing of measures such as import quotas and possible gas rationing. These ideas turned off more Americans than his attempt to rally them to embrace shared sacrifice. Carter’s talk about a “crisis of confidence” spoke louder about his own beliefs than that of the country. But reading the speech again today, what also strikes me is how similar Carter’s rhetoric sounds to some statements President Obama has made recently.
Obama is not the pessimist Carter was. While he can be as clueless as Carter when it comes to foreign policy and working with the Congress, Obama’s pugnacious and self-regarding tone springs from a self-confidence Carter appeared to lack while president. But when it comes to the messy business of democracy, in which not everyone shares your opinion, the two had more in common than I would have thought.
Here’s a passage from Carter’s July 15, 1979 address to the nation:
What you see too often in Washington and elsewhere around the country is a system of government that seems incapable of action. You see a Congress twisted and pulled in every direction by hundreds of well-financed and powerful special interests. You see every extreme position defended to the last vote, almost to the last breath by one unyielding group or another. You often see a balanced and a fair approach that demands sacrifice, a little sacrifice from everyone, abandoned like an orphan without support and without friends.
While some of this might have been said at any time in the last 222 years, it is interesting to see how similar these words are to President Obama’s own dismissal of the Congress of his own day, saying they listen only to “lobbyists and special interests.” Obama’s pose of Olympian detachment from partisan wrangling is anticipated by Carter’s all-too-familiar use of the same tropes. Like Carter, Obama seems to believe only his ideas are “balanced,” while those of the Republicans and the many Democrats who opposed him were merely partisan or part of a corrupt bargain with special interests.
Another striking point is the way Carter seems to berate Americans for showing too much individualism rather than embracing collective values and shared benefits:
There are two paths to choose. One is a path I’ve warned about tonight, the path that leads to fragmentation and self-interest. Down that road lies a mistaken idea of freedom, the right to grasp for ourselves some advantage over others.
Anyone looking for the roots of Obama’s invocation of shared sacrifice as well as the collectivist impulse at the root of his health care bill can see the similarities to those themes in that line from the “malaise” speech.
Carter’s speech resonates because it is perhaps the best example of political tone deafness in presidential history. Carter had no idea how badly his gloomy reflections (which illustrated his own dark mood better than that of his countrymen), would be received. The question for Barack Obama as he tries to play some of the same notes in the course of his own presidential crises is whether he is as connected to public opinion as he thinks he is.
Carter’s presidency was doomed by his obliviousness to the opinions of ordinary Americans. For all of the pugnacious optimism about his own presidency apparent in Obama’s comments, he, too, must be wary of a similar miscalculation as he attempts to blame everyone but himself for a looming debt disaster.