Remembering Malaise: The 30th Anniversary of President Carter's Crisis of Confidence Speech

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carter solar panels

Thirty years ago today, President Jimmy Carter broke ten days of isolation at the presidential retreat at Camp David to give a nationally televised speech telling Americans that they were the problem. In a fascinating effort to rewrite history, former Carter speechwriter Gordon Stewart offers a defense of Carter's infamous "malaise speech" in today's New York Times. Stewart notes that Carter believed that…

…Americans had become inward-looking, obsessed with consumption, fragmented, incapable of collective action and suffering a "crisis of confidence."  

In his speech Carter told Americans: 

It's clear that the true problems of our nation are much deeper—deeper than gasoline lines or energy shortages, deeper even than inflation or recession….

Carter said that he'd earnestly listened to scores of people from all walks of life and that he had concluded:

This kind of summarized a lot of other statements: "Mr. President, we are confronted with a moral and a spiritual crisis."…

I want to talk to you right now about a fundamental threat to American democracy…. It is a crisis of confidence…

… we've discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning. We've learned that piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose.

After ten days of reflection at Camp David, Carter emerged to tell Americans that the only way to lift them out of their funk was to launch an energy independence crusade. Stewart is correct that what 100 million people …

…saw and heard was unlike any moment they had experienced from their 39th president. Speaking with rare force, with inflections flowing from meanings he felt deeply, Jimmy Carter called for the "most massive peacetime commitment" in our history to develop alternative fuels.

In the speech, Carter declared that the U.S. would never import more oil than it did in 1977 and that the country would cut its dependence on foreign oil in half in the next decade. He proposed a federal Energy Security Corporation whose goal would be to replace two and half million barrels of imported oil per day. He promised that America would generate 20 percent of its energy using solar power by 2000. He asked that Congress grant him the authority to mandate energy rationing and called for the creation of an Energy Production Board modeled on World War II's War Production Board. He called for spending $10 billion on public transportation systems. He asked Americans to make sacrifices too:

I'm asking you for your good and for your nation's security to take no unnecessary trips, to use carpools or public transportation whenever you can, to park your car one extra day per week, to obey the speed limit, and to set your thermostats to save fuel. Every act of energy conservation like this is more than just common sense, I tell you it is an act of patriotism. 

But why might Americans have really been "suffering a crisis of confidence"? Maybe it had more to do with a 13 percent annual inflation rate, than trying to fill up their empty lives with material goods. Average prices increased 40 percent between 1979 and 1981. The prime interest rate peaked at 21.5 percent in December 1980. The unemployment rate fluctuated between 6 and 8 percent for Carter's entire term. Earlier in the decade Americans had suffered under price controls and gasoline rationing imposed by Presidents Nixon and Ford. The 1979 Iranian Revolution caused a spike in oil prices and gasoline rationing was being considered by the Carter administration. 

Could we be about to relive the 1970s? It's all too likely. The Obama administration and Congress don't want to just ration gasoline, but all carbon-based fuels. In addition, President Obama has called for an ambitious $150 billion alternative energy research program. The Democratic leadership has just passed a cap-and-trade bill that mandates that utilities get 20 percent of their energy from renewables like solar and wind by 2020. And the vast deficits piled up Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama may also bring back those 13 percent or higher inflation rates. 

Speechwriter Stewart wonders why Carter's address to the nation became known as the "malaise" speech since it never used that word. Here's why: To most Americans, Carter's speech made it plain that it was the president who had no confidence in America and its future. Consequently, a year and half later, the public voted no confidence on his presidency.  

For a nostalgic walk through Carter's failed energy policies, go here for my June Reason article, "It's Alive: Alternative energy subsidies make their biggest comeback since Jimmy Carter." 

NEXT: Mother Jones on the Drug War: Totally Wasted!

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  1. Shut the fuck up, Jimmy Carter.

  2. I wasn’t born until 1981 so I didn’t have the pleasure of living during Carter’s tenure, but how did this guy become President? He sounds like a wussy douche.

  3. Carter fucked up nuclear power, too.

  4. but how did this guy become President?

    Watergate gave the GOP a bad stench.

  5. If we had followed Carter’s policies on energy and rampant overspending consumerism, would we be in the mess we have today?

  6. Watergate gave the GOP a bad stench.

    Substitute Iraq for Watergate and you have the explanation of how Obama became president.

  7. how history does repeat itself … the GOP has now has a bad stench and the Dems will take a precarious economic situation and make it worse. Late 70’s redux!
    Now, the question is: where is the new Reagan?

  8. to obey the speed limit

    My car gets its best gas mileage at a little over 70mph.

  9. “To most Americans, Carter’s speech made it plain that it was the president who had no confidence in America and its future.”

    That is exactly right. Obama has the same smug “this country isn’t good enough to have me as President” attitude Carter had. Someone like Obama and Carter do great campaigning or when things are going well. But when there is a crisis they immediately turn on the country and blame everything on everyone else. As the recession drags on and Congress denies him socialized medicine and cap and theft, Obama is going to start getting really snippy. My guess is, since things are worse now than they were in 77 and times just move faster, Obama makes his malaise speech sometime late next year or early 2011.

  10. Substitute Iraq for Watergate and you have the explanation of how Obama became president.

    Hmmmm….an unpopular war and failed economic policies make a president that is a Big Government president by any objective measure into the standard bearer of limited govt, in order to discredit limited govt? Didn’t Cheney get his start in the Nixon admin?

    Cheney is clearly a Democratic party mole. 🙂

  11. IMHO, this sets up Romney as the GOP candidate for 2012…

  12. I wasn’t born until 1981 so I didn’t have the pleasure of living during Carter’s tenure, but how did this guy become President? He sounds like a wussy douche.

    Some day a child born in 2010 will ask the same question.

  13. booya, Who is John Galt?

  14. (I know I wrote this elsewhere, but I think it bares repeating)

    For all those that said to themselves, nothing can be worse than Bush & the Republicans and then pulled the Democratic Party lever:

    You BASTARDS!

    There most certainly can be something worse than Bush! Fucking morons that “punished” Bush by voting for Obama when Bush wasn’t even running.

  15. Who is John Galt?

    That book would have been much better had we replaced John Galt with a wise latina.

  16. in an ideal world, John Galt is alive and well … in the real world, libertarians idealize Galt while hoping for his shadow to present itself.

  17. Or, in both worlds, an expression for general malaise and resignation about the decaying world around them formed around around an man who rejected what everyone else accepts as inevitable.

  18. dammit, subtract an ‘around’ and an ‘n’

  19. “If we had followed Carter’s policies on energy and rampant overspending consumerism, would we be in the mess we have today?”

    Yes, except we’d all have hideous non-functional early 1980s solar water heaters that are too much trouble to take down on our roofs, just like my brother & his neighbor have.

  20. I lived through and remember well the Carter years. I also have long been of the opinion that Obama has inherited a mess not dissimilar to the one Carter inherited and is more than likely to fail as Carter did.

    Carter inherited an economy that was reeling from an energy crisis, an inflationary spiral that came partially from that crisis but also from massive government spending on public policy and Vietnam as well as the abandonment of the gold standard which started the inflation ball rolling… Obama has deflation instead but again it was an inherited problem.

    Carter failed, but he did appoint Volcker who was the one who killed inflation, so maybe Obama will leave something in his legacy we can really think well of…..

  21. Kahn … history is replete with strange anomolies, and we may hope for such as you describe … still, chances are that it is highly unlikely. Carter may have been a weak Keynesian, but Obama is wedded to an economic worldview that presupposes Keynes and flirts with naked Socialism.

  22. “…so maybe Obama will leave something in his legacy we can really think well of…..”

    I’m betting it won’t be a vibrant auto industry.

  23. Obama makes Carter look like a philosopher king. Carter to his credit did appint Volker, did try somewhat to reign in spending and deregulated the airline and natural gas industries. Obama if given the opportunity would undo even those Carter reforms.

    One of the great ironies of the Obama administration is going to be that he will set back race relations 40 years in the this country. After Obama, voters will never again beleive that a black man, no matter how attractively presented, is anything but a Maoist looking for payback against the white man.

  24. Carter made home-brew beer legal again.

    Beyond that, he sucked.

  25. I spend a lot of last year telling youngsters “it ain’t really that bad yet, you didn’t live through Carter”.

    Obama put an end to that one.

  26. Wait until there is another big hurricane or a terrorist attack and there is no money to pay for it because dumb ass spent it all on the porkulus.

  27. If we had followed Carter’s policies on energy and rampant overspending consumerism, would we be in the mess we have today?

    Nah.

    We’d be in a completely different mess.

  28. nice post…
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  29. “To most Americans, Carter’s speech made it plain that it was the president who had no confidence in America and its future.”

    You can’t have read the speech, because Carter said:

    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.

    We know the strength of America. We are strong. We can regain our unity.

    We ourselves are the same Americans who just ten years ago put a man on the moon. We are the generation that dedicated our society to the pursuit of human rights and equality. And we are the generation that will win the war on the energy problem and in that process, rebuild the unity and confidence of America.

    You know we can do it. We have the natural resources. We have more oil in our shale alone than several Saudi Arabias. We have more coal than any nation on earth. We have the world’s highest level of technology. We have the most skilled work force, with innovative genius, and I firmly believe that we have the national will to win this war.

    I have seen the strength of America in the inexhaustible resources of our people.

    Whenever you have a chance, say something good about our country. With God’s help and for the sake of our nation, it is time for us to join hands in America. Let us commit ourselves together to a rebirth of the American spirit. Working together with our common faith we cannot fail.

    I dare you to post the quotes that show Carter had “no confidence in American and its future.”

    Also, to even suggest that Carter lost the ’80 election as a consequence of anything to do with this speech is ridiculous.

  30. Dittoheads. I love Reason Magazine, but you guys sound just like … Dittoheads. I don’t mean a slavish adoration of Matt (who is shitstorms more deserving than senor Rush) but just the total lack of debate. Except some dude from Norway….? Carter’s policies were flawed. So are every administration’s. But they pointed in a smart direction: Reduced dependence on one of the world’s most consistently unstable regions.

    Look, Carter’s not your problem, and I’m not hearing great alternatives from the Reason crowd. You sound like a bunch of cranky old men reliving slights from your youth.

    Where do you want to take us NOW motherfuckers?

  31. I thought Reason was a libertarian magazine, not a Republican talking point brief machine.

  32. I can see on this forum what is wrong with America today. Carter had it right 30 years ago though.

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