Sit down kids, and let grandpa tell you a story.
I want to talk to you right now about a fundamental threat to American democracy… 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…Jimmy Carter, July 15, 1979
Forty years ago, President Jimmy Carter delivered a landmark speech. It was a crucial moment in his presidency: a bold, ultimately ill-fated, attempt to lift the American spirit.
An energy shortage hit the USA in 1979, forcing millions of frustrated automobile drivers to wait in long lines for hours at gas stations. In response, Carter asked Congress to deregulate the price of domestic oil. The oil companies strongly favored the deregulation of prices, since it would increase their profits, but some members of Congress worried that deregulation would contribute to inflation. A Gallup poll found only 14% of the public believed that America was in an actual energy shortage; 77% believed that it was brought on by oil companies just to make a profit. Carter paired the deregulation proposal with a windfall profits tax, which would return about half of the new profits of the oil companies to the people’s government, but Congress balked at implementing the proposed tax.
By July 1979, as the energy crisis continued, Carter met with a series of business, government, labor, academic, and religious leaders to help overhaul his administration’s policies. His pollsters told him that the American people faced a crisis of confidence stemming from the assassinations in the 1960s of not just Dr. Martin Luther King. Jr, and John F. and Robert Kennedy, and also Malcolm X and Medgar Evers, plus the Vietnam War, and the Watergate Scandal. Most of his top advisers urged him to continue to focus on the energy crisis, but Carter seized on the idea that the major crisis facing the country was a crisis of confidence. On July 15, Carter delivered a nationally televised speech in which he called for long-term limits on oil imports and the development of alternative fuels. And he also stated:
…all the legislation in the world can’t fix what’s wrong with America. What is lacking is confidence and a sense of community.
The speech came to be known as the “Malaise Speech”, although Carter never used the word in the speech.
The initial reaction to Carter’s speech was positive, and Congress approved a $227 billion windfall profits tax and passed the Energy Security Act. Carter’s policies helped bring a decrease in per capita energy consumption, which dropped by 10%. Oil imports, which had reached a record 2.4 billion barrels in 1977, or 50% of the supply, declined by half from 1979 to 1983.
Carter’s enemies began to weaponize the idea of ”malaise”. The term became a devastating epithet to his allegedly failed presidency. Figures as diverse as Ted Kennedy and Ronald Reagan bolstered a narrative about the address’ downbeat tone and its blaming of the American people for their difficulties.
By the fall, the speech became campaign fodder for Reagan:
I find no national malaise. I find nothing wrong with the American people.Ronald Reagan
Reagan deployed sunny imagery and rhetoric to suggest the main obstacle to, as his campaign slogan put it: ”Making America Great Again” was ”…that hapless peanut farmer in the White House”. Reagan showed how politically astute it could be to encourage Americans to ignore deeper cultural problems and to put their blind trust in their country’s greatness.
Carter, now 94-years-old, and former First Lady Rosalynn Carter are volunteers with Habitat for Humanity, a Georgia-based organization that helps low-income working people around the world to build and buy their own homes and access clean water. After losing his re-election bid in 1980, Carter told the White House press corps that he intended to emulate the retirement of Harry S. Truman and not use his presidency to enrich himself.