In July of 1979, President Jimmy Carter faced seemingly intractable problems. Inflation was at 13 percent. Gasoline lines caused Americans to wait to fill up their cars on alternating days. The U.S. space station Skylab was about to fall from the sky, and no one could tell for sure where it might land. The president’s popularity rating was at 25 percent, lower than any since Harry Truman, and a majority of his party looked forward to nominating Senator Edward Kennedy in 1980.
Carter had planned a major energy speech to be given the week of Independence Day. He canceled it, creating a greater sense of anticipation. Then for the next ten days, he remained at Camp David in the Maryland mountains where he hosted an array of leaders in business, economics, religion, and politics, and solicited advice on what he should do next.
On July 15th, Carter came down from the mountains and gave what came to be known as the “Malaise Speech,” even though he never used the word in his televised address to the nation. Surprising viewers, who were expecting a laundry list of proposals to deal with the energy crisis, Carter took a different tack.
Most presidential addresses proclaim the greatness of Americans as citizens of a unique nation poised for further greatness. Instead, Carter proclaimed that the nation was suffering a “crisis in confidence” which struck “at the very heart and soul and spirit of our national will.” He called upon the nation to reflect upon its meaning and purpose, and critiqued American materialism.
The immediate response was generally favorable. “No president since Abraham Lincoln had spoken to the American people with such sincerity about matters of the spirit,” gushed presidential historian Theodore White. Polls indicated that 61 percent of the public said the speech inspired further confidence. Seventy-two percent said they were willing to sacrifice to help solve the energy crisis, which had been Carter’s major policy plea. The president’s approval ratings went up twelve points.
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As scholar Robert A. Strong notes, the speech was more sermon than policy prescription. The structure was similar to southern church revivals familiar to Carter, a devout Southern Baptist. There was an acknowledgement of sins, as Carter acknowledged his failings; a reaffirmation of faith in the American spirit, and a rededication to action through a series of energy proposals Carter planned to send to Congress.
According to Strong, the speech itself was largely a success. But it was soon overshadowed by other factors.
Carter reshuffled his Cabinet within days, changing the focus on his call to American sacrifice. Soon his administration would be absorbed in foreign policy crises as the Iran hostage crisis and the Soviet takeover of Afghanistan dominated the headlines. Carter proved unable to overcome these obstacles and lost his re-election bid to Ronald Reagan, who projected a more sunny view of the American experience. Pundits would later criticize Carter’s “malaise” speech, arguing that he was blaming the public for his own failings.
According to Strong, Carter’s disappointments overshadowed his legacy, including accomplishments such as the Panama Canal treaty and the Camp David Accords that established a long-term peace between Egypt and Israel. The later setbacks, he noted, put the speech in a different light. But in its own time, the speech was considered both highly unusual and largely successful.