On July 15, 1979, U.S. President Jimmy Carter delivered a televised address to the country that almost immediately came to define his presidency more than any other single speech. Known as the “Malaise Speech” — though Carter never used the word “malaise” as an American Rhetoric transcript shows — Carter told Americans that they were experiencing a “crisis of confidence.” As a result, historians generally refer to Carter’s address given 39 years ago Sunday as “The Crisis of Confidence Speech.”
Life in America felt like it was in decline during the Carter presidency. As Middlebury College scholar Matthew Dickinson recounts, a prolonged energy crisis forced drivers to wait in long lines just to fill their gas tanks, while U.S. prestige abroad took a blow as the Islamic revolution in Iran ousted the American-backed monarch, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, whose family had ruled the country, often in brutal fashion, since 1921.
The gas shortage triggered by the Iranian revolution tripled gas prices in the United States, sending an already skyrocketing inflation rate to well over 13 percent, per the Inflation.eu database. By comparison, the 2018 inflation rate in the U.S. stands at just 2.38 percent. Carter’s own approval rating by July 15, 1979, had plummeted to about 39 percent, as FiveThirtyEight‘s historical data shows.
In Carter’s speech, he tried to impress on Americans that the will to beat those problems was within them, if only they could rise above their “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,” Carter said. “The erosion of our confidence in the future is threatening to destroy the social and the political fabric of America.”
Carter called the American crisis of confidence, as he saw it, “a fundamental threat to American democracy.” Now, nearly 40 years after his now-iconic speech, Carter sees a new and more drastic threat to democracy in America — one that has thrown the country into an even more harrowing crisis. That threat, he said, is Donald Trump.
“We still have the same crises of that time, plus a serious loss of faith in democracy, the truth, treating all people as equals, each generation believing life would be better, America has a good system of justice, etc.,” Carter told Salon in an interview published on Sunday, the 39th anniversary of his “Crisis” address. “This is much worse than when I gave the speech.”
Carter put the blame squarely on Trump.
“Under Trump the government is worse than it has been before. This is the first time I remember when the truth is ignored, allies are deliberately aggravated, China, Europe, Mexico and Canada are hurt economically and have to hurt us in response, Americans see the future worse than the present, and immigrants are treated cruelly,” Carter told Salon writer Matthew Rozsa.
Carter’s “malaise” speech is today remembered as a low point of his presidency.
“You might have heard that the speech was a disaster. That it was all about Jimmy Carter, the ‘loser’ president, shirking his responsibilities,” wrote historian Kevin Mattison in The American Prospect. “But in fact, the speech worked. It prompted an overwhelmingly favorable response. Carter received a whopping 11 percent rise in his poll numbers.”
Mail that poured into the White House after the speech showed Americans inspired by Carter’s bluntness and straight talk to take greater civic responsibility, and to make sacrifices for the good of the country as a whole, Mattison recounts. But then just two days after his speech, Carter made a huge political misstep — and gave the country a reason to lose confidence again, in his presidency, if not also in themselves.
As political journalist Allen McDuffee recounted, just two days after the speech, Carter suddenly demanded the resignations of all 12 of his cabinet members — and he accepted six of them. The move that Carter hoped would signal a new beginning for his presidency and guarantee his reelection in 1980 had exactly the opposite effect, instead projecting the appearance of a presidential “meltdown,” as Mattison put it.
Carter never recovered. In the November, 1980, presidential election, Carter was beaten soundly by hard-line conservative Ronald Reagan, a former Hollywood “B” movie star who was elected governor of California. Reagan took 50.7 percent of the popular vote, according to Presidency Project data, to just 41 percent for Carter and 6.6 percent to independent candidate John Anderson.