The nation is in the midst of its third year of pandemic. Inflation has cramped family budgets, as wages just don’t go as far as they used to. Random shortages of goods continue to pop up. An unending series of gun massacres and wild swings in reproductive law have triggered unease and anxiety. Public and private institutions look ineffectual. Revelations of the previous administration’s plot to an overthrow of an election only add to the chaos and strike a more dour mood about the future.
Forty-three years ago today, in a time of similar disquiet, President Jimmy Carter gave his “crisis of confidence” speech in the White House. (It was later dubbed the “malaise” speech, though it doesn’t contain that word; “malaise” was something Clark Clifford told reporters days earlier that the president was worried about, and the term stuck.) Carter was supposed to talk about energy, but realized that “the true problems of our nation are much deeper,” what he called “a moral and spiritual crisis” that “is threatening to destroy the social and political fabric of America.”
Carter outlined a loss of faith in the belief that America can make progress, and said the nation was too consumed with material gain and self-indulgence. Alienation from the political process, the recognition of limits in energy and “a system of government that seems incapable of action” characterized this miasma. To narrow this “gap between citizens and our government,” Carter counseled faith in America’s strength and restoring common purpose. As a policy matter, he called for a wartime mobilization for American-made energy, curbs on the use of oil, and national conservation. “The solution of our energy crisis can also help us to conquer the crisis of spirit in our country,” he concluded. “It can rekindle our sense of unity, our confidence in the future, and give our nation and all of us individually a new sense of purpose.”
The speech received immediate public praise and a flood of letters of support to the White House. Carter’s approval ratings rose by as much as 17 points in one poll. But the president stepped on his message by asking for his entire cabinet’s resignation two days later, feeding into the very crisis of confidence he previously tried to defuse.
The bigger long-term problem for Carter was that so little of his energy agenda got off the ground. He charted a course for restoring presidential leadership and then failed to deliver. Voters went in another direction—replacing him with Ronald Reagan—the following year.
TODAY, POLLING FROM IPSOS provided exclusively to the Prospect, shows the public in substantially the same mood as they were in when Carter addressed the nation in 1979. The survey took five statements directly from Carter’s crisis of confidence speech, without saying where they came from, and asked respondents if they agreed. They did, by wide margins. The poll also asked them about five lines from Ronald Reagan’s 1981 inaugural address, also kept unattributed. None of the Reagan statements polled as high as the Carter speech statements.
“You hear Reagan [described] as a saint of American politics,” said Chris Jackson, senior vice president at Ipsos. The polling, though, “speaks to his tenor and tone as a little out of step. Carter… where he was 43 years ago seems to be aligned with where Americans are at the moment.”
The poll tested directly a line from Carter’s speech (“We’ve followed a path to fragmentation and self-interest, where freedom is the idea that we have the right to grasp for ourselves some advantage over others”) against a separate line from that speech, in which Carter said “the traditions of our past” were to “follow a path of common purpose and the restoration of American values, working together.” Asked which path Americans were following today, respondents agreed with the former by an 85-13 margin.
But while the sentiment resonates, any attempt to rally the public to reverse course won’t work without actual progress being made, Jackson said. “The country is looking for someone to give us a path to solutions… the problem we’re seeing now is that the current crop of leadership is seen as feckless in delivering.”
The findings fit with this week’s New York Times/Siena College poll showing that America’s system of government isn’t working and needs “major reforms or a complete overhaul.”
They also fit with a growing set of numbers showing Americans believing that the country is on the wrong track. In the Ipsos poll, 16 percent believe the country is headed in the right direction, with 83 percent in the wrong one. That holds for virtually every issue set, including global leadership (29/70), abortion policy (27/71), climate change (24/74), the economy (20/78), achieving the American dream (20/78), and gun violence (11/87).
Even on jobs and employment, at a time when the nation’s jobless rate is at a historically low 3.6 percent and all the jobs have been gained back from the pandemic recession, the right track/wrong track numbers are also underwater, at 44/54.
This feeling that everything is awful could explain the grasping toward anything that looks like progress, such as the wide dissemination of images from the James Webb Space Telescope. That desire to find leadership is evident in the data.
Other toplines in the poll offer theoretical opportunities for Democrats. Of the top five most important issues that respondents designated, only one (inflation, the number one issue) codes specifically as a Republican talking point. The other top issues are gun violence, political extremism and polarization, climate change, and abortion. (Respondents favored legalized abortion by a 54-23 margin.)
Meanwhile, when asked who is to blame for the country moving in the wrong direction, wrong-track respondents choose Democratic leaders and officials with 42 percent, Republican leaders and officials with 31 percent, and the Supreme Court with 9 percent. Putting the two conservative forces together gives rough parity between the parties in terms of blaming for the state of the nation. “It’s very much a pox on all their houses,” Jackson said.
THE MORE STRIKING RESULTS from the poll are the answers specifically to questions about where the nation is at today. By a 68-10 margin, respondents agree that “the United States is in decline.” Two-thirds of those polled agreed that “The American economy is rigged to advantage the rich and powerful,” with 14 percent opposed. They agree 65-10 that “traditional parties and politicians don’t care about people like me.” And they save some ire for the mainstream media, which by a 70-13 margin they say is “more interested in making money than telling the truth.”
These sentiments, too, align with the lines from the Carter speech, all of which get strong agreement: “The true problems of our nation are much deeper—deeper than gasoline lines or energy shortages, deeper even than inflation or recession” (78 percent agree, 6 percent disagree), “Our people are losing faith, not only in government itself but in the ability as citizens to serve as the ultimate rulers and shapers of our democracy” (73-6), “The people are looking for honest answers, not easy answers; clear leadership, not false claims and evasiveness and politics as usual” (73-11), “Piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose” (71-4), and “The erosion of our confidence in the future is threatening to destroy the social and political fabric of America” (68-7).
By contrast, the Reagan line that “We are a united people pledged to maintaining a political system which guarantees individual liberty to a greater degree than any other” falls flat, with 32 percent agreeing and 38 percent disagreeing. Other Reagan lines get support, but not to the degree of Carter’s: “We’re not, as some would have us believe, doomed to an inevitable decline” (43-23), “Our present troubles parallel, and are proportionate to, the intervention and intrusion in our lives that result from unnecessary and excessive growth of government” (47-20), “In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem” (60-16), and “Those who say that we’re in a time when there are not heroes, they just don’t know where to look. You can see heroes every day” (63-9).
Two-thirds of those polled agreed that “The American economy is rigged to advantage the rich and powerful,” with 14 percent opposed.
The survey polled 1,019 Americans over 18 from July 8-10, with a margin of error of +/- 3.3 percent. The sample was a little high in Biden’s favor (44 percent of those polled said they voted for Biden versus 31 percent for Donald Trump), but Jackson said that on most questions there was not a strong difference between the voting segments, with the exception of the Reagan line about government being the problem.
IT’S ONE THING FOR AMERICANS TO AGREE that there’s a crisis of confidence and a lack of faith in institutions. It’s quite another to clear a path to restoring that confidence and faith. Carter never figured it out, and the country isn’t inclined to expect anything different from President Biden just now.
One common problem is that neither Carter nor Biden have the support needed in Congress to forward an agenda. While Carter had wide majorities in the House and Senate, there was no congressional consensus about what should be done. In one of a series of meetings at Camp David before the crisis of confidence speech, a number of senators and representatives offered different, often parochial ideas about energy independence.
The speech included a six-point plan to reduce foreign oil imports, fund alternatives (including a goal of getting 20 percent of all energy from solar by 2000) with direct appropriations and energy bonds, enact a windfall profits tax on oil companies, mandate that utilities use less oil and that households engage in more conservation, and establish an energy mobilization board. Most of these initiatives, save a version of the windfall profits tax, stalled in Congress.
Similarly today, lawmakers have been debating Biden’s social policy agenda for well over a year, and aren’t all that close to any result. Just when it seemed that Joe Manchin and Chuck Schumer were building a framework for reforming drug prices, raising taxes on the rich, and boosting energy investment, House centrists led by Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-NJ) commenced blowing up the deal over demands for tax cuts for the upper-middle-class. Manchin has now dumped the climate and tax measures, and is talking about just doing the very modest drug price reform and going home. Just like with Carter, there’s no consensus.
“What people are still waiting for is the delivery,” Jackson said. “It speaks to that wider sense of disillusionment.” That could be why the reaction to the Supreme Court decisions on guns and abortion, with heavy reminders to go vote, have triggered unhappiness from the Democratic base.
Asked how he would counsel Biden to navigate the political moment, Jackson said that he needed to recognize the national mood, that belief in the nation’s form of democracy was slipping away. “I would say it doesn’t matter what you do so long as you do something,” he said. “Talking about broad policies or suggesting to go vote, none of that feeds the urgency people feel in the moment now.”
The full toplines of the poll are embedded below.