Thursday, June 18, 2009

"The Crisis-of-Confidence Speech" by Andrew J. Bacevich

By the late 1970's, a period of slow growth and high inflation, the still-forming crisis of profligacy was already causing real distress in American households. The first protracted economic downturn since World War II confronted Americans with a fundamental choice. They could curb their appetites and learn to live within their means or deploy dwindling reserves of U.S. power in hopes of obliging others to accommodate their penchant for conspicuous consumption. Between July 1979 and March 1983, a fateful interval book-ended by two memorable presidential speeches, they opted decisively for the later.

Here lies the true pivot of contemporary American history, far more relevant to our present predicament than supposedly decisive events like the fall of the Berlin Wall or the collapse of the Soviet Union...

Only July 15, 1979, Jimmy Carter delivered the first of those two pivotal speeches. The circumstances were less than congenial, popular dissatisfaction with his presidency was growing at an alarming rate. The economy was in terrible shape. Inflation had reached 11 percent. Seven percent of American workers were unemployed. The prime lending rate stood at 15 percent and was still rising. By postwar standards, all these figures were unacceptably high, if not unprecedented. Worse yet, In January 1979, Iranian revolutionaries ousted the Shah of Iran, a long-time U.S. ally, resulting in a second "oil shock". Gasoline prices in the United States soared, due not to actual shortages but to panic buying. The presidential election season beckoned. If Carter hoped to win a second term, he needed to turn things around quickly.

The President had originally intended to speak on July 5, focusing his address exclusively on energy.. At the last minute he decided to postpone it. Instead, he spent ten days sequestered at Camp David, using the time, he explained, "to reach out and listen to the voices of America." At his invitation, a host of politicians, academics, business and labor leaders, clergy, and private citizens trooped through the presidential retreat to offer their views on what was wrong with America and what Carter needed to do to set things right.

The speech that Carter delivered when he returned to the White House bore little resemblance to the one he had planned earlier. He began by explaining that he had decided to look beyond energy because "the true problems of our Nation are much deeper". The energy crisis of 1979, he suggested, was merely a symptom of a far greater crisis.

So, I want to speak to you first tonight about a subject even more serious than energy or inflation. I want to talk to you right now about a fundamental threat to American democracy."

In short order, Carter then proceeded to kill any chance he had of securing reelection. In American political discourse, fundamental threats are by definition external. Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan, or international communism could threaten the United States. That very year Iran's Islamic revolutionaries had emerged to pose another such threat. That the actions of everyday Americans might pose a comparable threat amounted to rank heresy. Yet Carter now dared to suggest that the real danger to American democracy lay within.

The nation as a whole was experiencing "a crisis of confidence," he announced.

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 lives and in the loss of a unity of purpose for our nation".

This erosion of confidence threatened "to destroy the social and political fabric of America."Americans had strayed from the path of righteousness.

In a nation that was proud of hard work, strong families, close-knit communities, and our faith in God, too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption. Human identity is no longer define by what one does, but by what one owns. But 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.

With his references to "what we've discovered" and "what we've learned," Carter implied that he was voicing concerns that his listeners already shared: that average Americans viewed their lives as empty, unsatisfying rituals of buying, and longed for something meaningful.

To expect Washington to address these concerns was, he made clear, fanciful. According to the president, the federal government had become "an island", isolated from the people. Its major institutions were paralyzed and corrupt. It was "a system of government that seems incapable of action." Carter spoke of "A Congress twisted and pulled in every direction by hundreds of well financed and powerful special interests". Partisanship routinely trumped any concern for the common good: "You see every extreme position defended to the last vote, almost to the last breath by one unyielding group or another."

We are at a turning point in our history. There are two paths to choose. One is a path I've warned about tonight, the path that leads to fragmentation and self-interest. Down that road lies the mistaken idea of freedom, the right to grasp for ourselves some advantage over others. That path would be one of constant conflict between narrow interests ending in chaos and immobility.

The alternative- a course consistent with "all the traditions of the past and all the lessons of our heritage" pointed down another path, the path of common purpose and the restoration of American values. As portrayed by Carter, the mistaken idea of freedom was quantitative: It centered on a never-ending quest for more while exalting narrow self-interest. His conception of authentic freedom was qualitative: It meant living in accordance with permanent values. At least by implication, it meant settling for less...

How Americans dealt with the question of energy, the president believed, was likely to determine which idea of freedom would prevail...with this in mind, Carter outlined a six-point program designed to end what he called "this intolerable dependence on foreign oil... [with somewhat less of a emphasis on 'technological fixes' and 'market forces' than the programs being proposed today, thirty years later]..

Although Carter expressed confidence that the United States could one day regain its energy independence, he acknowledged that in the near term "there was simply no way to avoid sacrifice." Indeed, implicit in Carter's speech was the suggestion that sacrifice just might be a good thing. For the sinner, some sort of penance must necessarily precede redemption.

The response to his address- instantly labeled the "malaise" speech although Carter never used that word- was tepid at best. As an effort to reorient public policy, Carter's appeal failed completely. Americans showed little enthusiasm for the president's brand of freedom with its connotations of virtuous austerity. Presented with an alternative to quantitative solutions, to the search for "more", they declined the offer. Not liking the message, Americans shot the messenger. Given the choice, more still looked better.

The crisis-of-confidence speech did enjoy a long and fruitful life- chiefly as fodder for his political opponents.


  1. The most formidable of Carter's opponents, already the front-runner for the 1980 Republican nomination, was Ronald Reagan, the former governor of California. Reagan portrayed himself as a conservative. He was, in fact, the modern prophet of profligacy, the politician who gave moral sanction to the empire of consumption. Beguiling his fellow citizens with his talk of "morning in America", the faux-conservative Reagan added to America's civic religion two crucial beliefs: Credit has no limits, and the bills will never come due. Balance the books, pay as you go, save for a rainy day- Reagan's abrogation of these ancient bits of folk wisdom did as much to recast America's moral constitution as did sex, drugs, and rock and roll.

    Reagan offered his preliminary response to Carter on November 13, 1979, the day he officially declared himself a candidate for the presidency. When it came to confidence, the former governor wanted it known that he had lots of it. In a jab at Carter, he alluded to those "who would have us believe that the United States, like other great civlizations of the past, has reached its zenith of power" and who "tell us we must learn to live with less'. Reagan rejected these propositions.. He envisioned a future in which the United States would gain even greater power while Americans would enjoy ever greater prosperity, the one reinforcing the other. The sole obstacle to all this was the federal government, which he characteized as inept, arrogant and confiscatory. His proposed solution was to pare down the bureacracy, reduce federal spending, and cut taxes..when it came to energy, he was insistent: "We must decide that 'less' is not enough'.

    As was so often the case, Reagan laid on enough frosting to compensate for any shortcomings in the cake. In his peroration, he approvingly quoted Tom Paine on Americans having the power to 'begin the world over again." He endorsed John Winthrop's charge that God had commanded Americans to erect "a city on a hill" And he cited (without attribution) Franklin D. Roosevelt's entreaty for the present generation to keep their "rendezvous with destiny". For Reagan, the arc of America's future, like the arc of the American past ( at least as he remembered it) pointed ever upward. Overall, it was a bravura performance.

    And it worked. No doubt Reagan spoke from the heart, but his real gift was a canny knack for telling Americans what they most wanted to hear. As a candidate, Reagan did not call on Americans to tighten their belts, make do or settle for less. He saw no need for sacrifice or self-denial. He rejected as false Carter's dichotomy between quantity and quality. Above all, he assured his countrymen that they could have more. Through-out his campaign, this remained a key theme.

    [And this has remined the key theme for all successful presidential candidates since, Obama's "change" not-with-standing.

  2. "The Limits of Power; The End of American Exceptionlism" by Andrew J. Bacevich, professor of history and international relations at Boston University, Metropolitan Books, N.Y. 2008

  3. Great post. Thanks for writing it. I was 2 years old in 1979. I'm actually shocked the whole thing is still holding and going everyday. Poor Jimmy Carter.

  4. Thank you for reminding me what a terrible president Reagan really was.