Republicans love to compare Barack Obama to Jimmy Carter, for no apparent reason other than that Carter was the last Democratic one-term president. So, naturally, Mitt Romney pounced on Obama’s comment that “America is stressed out.” On Friday July 15, the thirty-second anniversary of Carter’s infamous “malaise” speech, the Romney campaign was quick to make every possible comparison between then and now. Romney’s campaign sent multiple press releases invoking President Jimmy Carter’s First they declared “President Obama’s ‘Stress’ equals Jimmy Carter’s ‘Malaise.’ ” Within a few hours they were simply referring to “President Obama’s Malaise.”
Unfortunately for Romney, the “malaise” speech is more myth than fact. Carter never actually used the word “malaise” and the speech wasn’t actually the failure as which it is widely remembered. Kevin Mattson explained in The American Prospect in 2009, Carter’s speech was actually a success. “Carter received a whopping 11 percent rise in his poll numbers,” Mattson writes. “The mail that poured into the White House testified that many citizens felt moved by the speech.”
The reason the speech is remembered as a failure is because of what followed. “He blew the opportunity that the speech opened up for him,” Mattson explains. “Carter fired his Cabinet, signifying a governmental meltdown. The president’s poll numbers sank again as confusion and disarray took over. Carter could give a great speech, but there were two things he couldn’t manage: to govern well enough to make his language buoy him or to find a way to yoke the energy crisis with concrete civic re-engagement initiative.”
Although some of the sharper political pundits, such as Politico’s Mike Allen, corrected the record on the fact that the word malaise never appeared in the speech the larger context is still largely missing. (Allen referred to the speech as “disastrous.”)
Today Carter is remembered as a political failure because of his inability to bolster the flagging economy. At least, that’s how Republicans like to remember him. And so the parallel to today’s weak economic growth is too obvious not to note, even for non-partisan reporters.
But, in fact, Carter’s speech was about something quite different: the American people’s civic disengagement and spiritual emptiness. Carter lamented that too many Americans “worship self-indulgence and consumption,” and how “growing disrespect for government” and “fragmentation and self-interest” were undermining our national unity and character.
If you look at what the speech was actually about, and how it was actually received, you do see a similarity to Obama, but not the one Romney wants to invoke. Instead, it’s a call to common purpose that Obama’s best speeches often invoke.
Coincidentally, historians are just as likely to attribute Carter’s failure to win re-election in 1980 to the unsuccessful attempt to evacuate American hostages from Tehran. Given Obama’s perfect execution of a similarly daring operation to kill Osama bin Laden, the implications of Carter’s experience may not auger so poorly for him after all.