A person can’t pick up a newspaper or turn on the television these days without hearing about the state of the economy. Wrenching stories about job losses, economic hardships, and stimulus proposals fly off the pages and the screens as Americans anxiously wait to hear what the coming months will bring.
Such a description would have fit the country just as well in 1979. President Jimmy Carter’s reaction to the events of that time carries lessons—and a warning—for President Barack Obama today.
During the summer of 1979, Carter took to the airwaves to address the nation in response to mounting economic problems. Most Americans remember that speech as Carter’s “malaise” speech. (The word itself doesn’t appear in the speech, but the description of its spirit was so apt that the name stuck.) The President spoke of a “crisis of confidence . . . that strikes at the very heart and soul and spirit of our national will.” This crisis, Carter concluded, “is threatening to destroy the social and the political fabric of America.”
Perhaps fewer Americans remember that much of the rest of the speech contained a bullet point list of solutions to the nation’s energy problems. Carter wanted the country to focus on the path to recovery and a restoration of confidence. Unfortunately, his pessimistic description of the state of America pulled voters further into despondency—at least until a few events such as the Miracle on Ice and Ronald Reagan’s optimistic presidential campaign restored their spirits.
Carter’s challenge was difficult, and it is shared by the nation’s 44th president. Obama’s ongoing task is to honestly assess the place in which Americans find themselves, but he must do so in a way that does not boomerang on him, pulling the country into despondency.
He is not off to a great start. Obama the presidential candidate spoke eloquently of “hope” and “change.” But Obama the President has been much more sober. Maybe too sober. His inaugural address prompted one commentator to [note](http://www.spiegel.de/international/world/0,1518,602558,00.html) that one “strong emotion of the day was fear. No world leader has been as clear as Obama was on [Inauguration Day] about the dangers presented by the global economic crisis.” Obama’s sentences, the editorialist noted, “pattered down on the gathered crowd like a cold rain.”
Less than three weeks later, Obama turned to pessimism again. He [wrote](http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/02/04/AR2009020403174_pf.html) in The Washington Post that, without government intervention, the economic situation could devolve into a “crisis that, at some point, we may not be able to reverse.” His written statement echoed earlier gloomy statements. “A failure to act,” he told Americans at a White House press conference, “will turn crisis into a catastrophe and guarantee a longer recession, a less robust recovery, and a more uncertain future.”
Carter spoke of a “crisis.” Obama thinks Americans face something even worse than a crisis.
It’s possible Obama realized that his early expressions of pessimism were ill-advised. Some of his recent speeches, particularly this week’s State of the Union address, seemed deliberately more optimistic than these early statements. In 1979, Carter spoke of a crisis of confidence, but on Tuesday Obama spoke merely of “shaken” confidence. “We will rebuild,” he told the nation. “We will recover, and the United States of America will emerge stronger than before.”
On the other hand, perhaps Obama returned to optimism for a more cynical reason: The political reasons for his pessimism have (temporarily) vanished.
During the push to enact the $787 billion spending—er, stimulus—bill, Obama appeared to be deliberately using fear tactics for purely political reasons. The President doubtless expected a longer honeymoon period. He got frustrated when the Democrats’ non-stimulating stimulus bill wasn’t well received and almost collapsed. Even the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office hit a sour note before the legislation was adopted, releasing a report indicating that the plan will cause the economy to suffer in the long run. The amount of debt incurred is simply too high. Obama seemed surprised by the backlash to Democratic proposals, and he responded by losing his normally reliable composure. He lashed out. His scare tactics succeeded. Three liberal Republicans enabled the massive Democratic spending plan to clear the Senate.
For now, Obama is tempering his pessimistic language. As he signed the spending bill, he spoke of “converting crisis into opportunity.” But don’t be surprised if he reverts to gloomy predictions the next time some industry or bank wants his help with a “critical” bailout package. Unfortunately, more of the same kind of pessimistic language might do mischief to the country’s morale, just as it did in 1979.
The economic concerns facing this country are real. They are borne of many years of bad decisions at many levels, from governmental to individual. No amount of optimistic language can undo the harsh realities of that bad decision-making. But Americans are known for their ability to persevere and to overcome bad situations through creativity and hard work. Even the hardest challenges can’t undo this fundamental aspect of the American character. And the leader of the American people should be the first to recognize and encourage such tenacity.
Ultimately, this determination—not some bloated government spending package—will be the true saving grace for Americans.
—Tara Ross is a co-author of [Under God: George Washington and the Question of Church and State](http://www.amazon.com/Under-God-George-Washington-Question/dp/1890626732/) and a contributing writer for Doublethink Online.