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

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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."