History

“Crisis of Confidence”

Jimmy Carter was the last president to call for Americans to stop consuming so much. Will anyone ever do that again?

A still of Jimmy Carter making a speech on live television on July 15, 1979.
President Jimmy Carter making his speech on July 15, 1979. Photo illlustration by Slate. Images via Educational Video Group/YouTube and aetb/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

The ongoing supply chain crisis, which threatens the pipeline of consumer goods from China to the United States, has resulted in a cluster of predictable political reactions. The right has jumped on the optics, tagging the president “Bare Shelves Biden”; the administration, playing defense, has stepped up efforts to prove that it’s pushing companies and major ports to resolve the blockages. What hasn’t happened yet, at least not on the national stage, is a moral discussion around American habits of consumption and a discussion of whether we could meet this crisis by modifying some of those habits. To judge by the last 40-odd years of American politics, that may never happen.

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That’s because the Biden administration’s struggle to frame the supply chain crisis recalls another besieged presidency from our past: that of Jimmy Carter. Remember Jimmy Carter’s infamous “malaise” speech, as it came to be known (though the word malaise appears nowhere in the actual speech)? Amid an energy crisis, Carter went on national television on July 15, 1979, and called for America to return to a sense of civic republicanism (lower case) that would unify citizens through a call to shared sacrifice for a common good.

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I describe in my book, What the Heck Are You Up To, Mr. President?,” how this speech came about. Carter had canceled an earlier scheduled energy crisis speech so that he could deliberate more on what he wanted to say. To write the “Crisis of Confidence” speech (the actual title), he gathered elected officials, accomplished scholars, religious leaders, and public intellectuals, having dinners at the White House and meetings at Camp David with thinkers like Marc Tanenbaum, then national director for interreligious affairs at the American Jewish Committee. In their meeting, Tanenbaum pushed the president to ask Americans to move away from “unrestrained consumerism” and “mindless self-indulgence” in order to find a way to “achieve personal happiness that does not depend on an endless accumulation of goods.”

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Following Tanenbaum, the sociologist Robert Bellah—who was becoming known as a “communitarian” at the time—argued that Carter could learn from the original Puritan settlers and their “covenant model,” and use the language of America as a “City on the Hill” (an idea that Ronald Reagan would later steal for his own). Bellah argued to the president that he could present the vision of a world in which “people participate in each other’s lives because they are mutually committed to values that transcend self-interest.”

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The speech that drew upon these conversations was daring and effective. Carter didn’t tone things down when he delivered the speech to television cameras. He exclaimed that “all the legislation in the world can’t fix what’s wrong with America,” suggesting that this was a moral as much as an energy crisis the nation faced. Carter worried openly that Americans defined themselves “no longer … by what one does, but by what one owns.” And then he added this zinger, “We’ve learned that piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose.”

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Carter outlined a moral obligation to do something collectively, demanding citizens rethink their own value systems. In this, too, Carter drew upon his own empathy to suggest that the poorest of citizens were the ones who felt the gas crisis the most—waiting in long lines at gas stations (some of which were becoming scenes of violence as citizens got into fist fights with one another while trying to fuel up) and paying rising prices out of relatively smaller paychecks. Here, Carter outlined a policy grounded in morals. He quoted a “young Chicano” who told him, “Some of us have suffered from recession all our lives.” Close to the end of the long speech, Carter pleaded, “Our nation must be fair to the poorest among us, so we will increase aid to needy Americans to cope with rising energy prices.”  This help would take the shape also of a push to “strengthen our public transportation systems.”

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A majority of Americans were riveted by the speech and, surprisingly (given its poor historical reputation), reacted in positive agreement with their president. The speech was “successful,” in that it boosted Carter’s poll numbers by 11 points (a rarity for the generally unpopular president) and elicited letters and phone calls to the White House from regular citizens who pledged to cut down on their consumption of gas. One person from Malden, Massachusetts, wrote right after Carter finished his delivery, “You are the first politician that has said the words that I have been thinking for years. Last month I purchased a moped to drive to work,” which would “cut my gas consumption by 75 percent.” A woman from Oregon wrote, “The American people are so spoiled, so wasteful.” And another woman from Long Island got behind the president to exclaim, “It is unconscionable that we Americans let our love of luxurie consume us as we consume oil.” It’s easy to picture the famous Carter grin breaking big at reading these reactions.

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What killed the president’s bounce upward and surge in support from ordinary citizens was not the substance of the moral call to arms, but his decision to fire his entire Cabinet two days after giving the speech. One presidential adviser commented to the New York Times that this was “Armageddon.” In the speech, Carter had admitted to making mistakes and quoted notes from discussions with ordinary citizens and politicians, one a Southern governor who said, “Mr. President, you are not leading this nation—you’re just managing the government.” Some had said Carter’s Cabinet members were disloyal to him, but a mass firing of top officials was not outlined or called for in the speech, and the act generated confusion and a sense of instability within his administration. In his memoir, Carter admitted, “I handled the Cabinet changes very poorly,” certainly an understatement.

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And there were those ready to take advantage of those miscalculations in their own pursuit of power. Sen. Ted Kennedy heard the speech and immediately got on the phone to explain to supporters that he had decided to run for president himself. Further left than Carter, Kennedy couldn’t stand the attitude he perceived in the speech. A few months after it, Kennedy complained, “Now, the people are blamed for every national ill, scolded as greedy, wasteful, and mired in malaise.” Carter was a pessimist who had forgotten about “the golden promise that is America.”

Kennedy wasn’t the biggest threat Carter faced. That came in the form of the eventual victor in the 1980 election, Ronald Reagan. In his run for the presidency, Reagan listened closely to his pollster Richard Wirthlin. A devoted Mormon with a big family, Wirthlin loved the brand of conservativism that he heard in Reagan’s radio talks and speeches leading up to his official run for the presidency. What Wirthlin noted in Reagan was that he had jettisoned the “pessimistic” streak in conservative political thought, an intellectual genealogy emphasizing the corruption of human nature and doubts about the naïveté of those promising the betterment of society, articulated by people like the historian Russell Kirk in the years after World War II, and more recently by the racist thinker John Derbyshire and the Catholic intellectual Ross Douthat. Reagan was most certainly an optimist, and optimism was a fine message to win a campaign against Carter—who could be pegged as sunken into a state of despair.

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Casting his eye across the hinterland, Reagan used Wirthlin’s thinking (and his own) to pronounce, “I find no national malaise. …  I find nothing wrong with the American people.” Though not the first to use the term malaise, he was certainly the most victorious in using the word. In contemporary parlance, Reagan “weaponized” the word. The real meaning of Reagan’s message was: There was no role for citizens to play in a public fight against an energy crisis, no need for sacrifice or a change in the way we lived. Instead, sit back and enjoy your wasteful ways, find pleasure in the act of consumption; don’t worry, be happy.

The nice sounds Reagan made in his speeches suggest why it’s difficult to rework Carter’s words for Joe Biden’s use in our coming winter of shortages. Take this meme, which shows two photographs, one a set of store shelves close to empty (“Biden’s America”), contrasting with another showing an abundance of shiny items (“Trump’s America”). Like much else in our discourse today, the way these images are used to make a political statement relies upon our post-fact culture. Seems that the image of those bountiful, Trump-y shelves was actually taken from photos of a store in Melbourne, Australia, back in 2012, and the sad, gloomy Biden shelves came from a picture taken in South Carolina during Hurricane Florence. But that’s hardly even the point; Fox News, always happy to open a new front in the War on Christmas, is primed to gripe that Biden’s ruining American abundance, epitomized for them in a holiday with lots of consumer items traded among family members and twinkly lights on the tree.

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The Biden administration’s reaction to this situation, so far, has been to ignore asinine questions about Christmas presents, while pushing hard to fix the way the situation looks and feels, to shift things back to “normal.” Imagine a Biden speech that, instead, sent this message: We are used to pushing a button and getting a product delivered. For good reason, that might have been a necessity at the height of the pandemic. But it’s now indefensible, that is, if we care about carbon footprints, climate change, and the health of the workers who make the supply chain go. Slow down and think about what really matters in our lives. That last was the best part of Carter’s message, and many Americans, I think, would still respond to it. But the intervening decades of American politics have made it very hard to imagine any president going there, ever again.

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