A Politics of National Sacrifice

On July 15, 1979, President Jimmy Carter gave the riskiest speech of his presidency. In what became known as the "malaise speech" -- though the word "malaise" never appeared in it -- the president riveted the nation. He delivered the speech amid rumors that he had gone crazy, his reputation plummeting in the face of an energy crisis and a breakdown in the country's civic fabric. Ten days earlier, truckers and residents had rioted in usually quiet Levittown, Pennsylvania, setting bonfires to protest inflationary costs and limited supplies of fuel, made worse by recent machinations of OPEC.

Abroad at the time of the riot, Carter cut short his vacation and returned to the States. His staff scheduled a televised speech, but the president canceled it. Instead, he held a "domestic summit" at Camp David, where civic and political leaders gathered to discuss the state of America's soul. Carter believed something more than the energy crisis was troubling the nation.

Two days after the summit ended, he delivered the "malaise speech." The diagnosis he laid out was harsh: "Too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption. Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns." He decried how "two-thirds of our people do not even vote," how there was a "growing disrespect for government," and how "fragmentation and self-interest" prevented Americans from tackling the energy crisis. It was an indictment of America's civic spirit. Carter used the speech to articulate a realist style of leadership, charged with the warnings about limits and humility. He shared responsibility by confessing his faults. He recognized the wounds left over from Watergate, Vietnam, and the assassinations of the 1960s. At one point, though he didn't have to, he said, "This is not a message of happiness or reassurance, but it is the truth and it is a warning."

You might have heard that the speech was a disaster. That it was all about Jimmy Carter, the "loser" president, shirking his responsibilities. Sean Wilentz writes in The Age of Reagan, "Carter appeared to be abdicating his role as leader and blaming the people themselves for their own afflictions." This interpretation is repeated countless times in history textbooks.

But in fact, the speech worked. It prompted an overwhelmingly favorable response. Carter received a whopping 11 percent rise in his poll numbers. The mail that poured into the White House testified that many citizens felt moved by the speech. One man wrote to Carter, "You are the first politician that [sic] has said the words that I have been thinking for years. Last month I purchased a moped to drive to work with. I plan to use it as much as possible, and by doing so I have cut my gas consumption by 75%."

In the end, Jimmy Carter did blow the situation, but it wasn't because of the speech itself. Rather, he blew the opportunity that the speech opened up for him. Just two days after July 15, 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 initiatives. Though Americans were inspired by the speech, many were still stumped as to what was expected of them. As Time magazine described it: "The President basked in the applause for a day and then set in motion his astounding purge, undoing much of the good he had done himself."

Short-term losses, though, sometimes hide long-term opportunities. Today that language of civic sacrifice resonates even more powerfully, after eight years of conservative rule grounded in talk about the virtues of free markets and self-interest. Carter's vision of humbled leadership and engaged citizenship also contrasts nicely with the hubris of George W. Bush. A vision of government and citizens working together to overcome a crisis might offer progressives a way to set realistic expectations about what government can and cannot do. It would seem that our current president has started to learn that lesson.

Looking back now, the malaise speech indicates a turning point in our history, one that helps define Barack Obama's recent victory. The age of conservatism -- from Reagan's 1980 election up through the end of George W. Bush's second term -- has been framed not by Carter's tones of humility but by celebratory nationalism. In fact, the conservative game plan was laid by Ronald Reagan's direct retort to the malaise speech, made when announcing his candidacy against Carter. Reagan explained, "I find no national malaise." Instead, America stood as a "shining city on a hill," a term he used persistently throughout the campaign.

From that moment, sacrifice and civic obligation faded from presidential rhetoric. You never heard Carter's language from either of the Bushes -- not even in the wake of September 11, when W. instead told Americans to go shopping. Or consider 2008 GOP vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin, who suggested all was well in "real America" -- it was only Washington that had problems. Such was the end-game of right-wing populism: government bad, people good.

Which is not to suggest that the idea of civic sacrifice entirely vanished from American life. Carter had touched something in the American psyche -- the desire to think of oneself as a member of a national community. Still, the conservative road to victory marginalized such rhetoric with attacks on taxes and other civic debts. It is no surprise that decline in talk about civic sacrifice correlated with the decline of liberalism.

As governor of Arkansas in 1979, Bill Clinton attended Carter's "domestic summit," where he became fascinated with Carter's quest to connect federal programs of energy conservation to citizen action on the ground. Clinton echoed this theme in his own presidential pronouncement of "big citizenship" and backed it up with his support for AmeriCorps and community-policing initiatives. The only catch was that Clinton simultaneously pronounced the death of "big government," rhetoric that proved a better fit for the mood of the 1990s when libertarianism and free markets reigned supreme.

So what of the current Democrat in the White House? Obama entered office with a massive amount of support, with good cheer buoying him, as did Carter who followed on the heels of an administration still tainted by Watergate. Some looking back at this situation worry. Will Obama become, like Carter, a one-term president who can't get the country out of its mire? Numerous political observers have predicted that high expectations will inevitably crash.

Obama has recognized the challenge. He has already shifted gears from his campaign of "hope" and "change." In his Inaugural Address, he told Americans that storm clouds were gathering. These included terrorism, a sinking economy, and an environmental crisis. But something more, too, he claimed, echoing Carter: "Less measurable, but no less profound, is a sapping of confidence across our land; a nagging fear that America's decline is inevitable, that the next generation must lower its sights." He went on to say that the "challenges we face are real, they are serious and they are many. They will not be met easily or in a short span of time." The language here was of realism and maturity -- to be embraced not just by citizens but by the republic's leaders.

Also consider Obama's short and straightforward response after several of his Cabinet appointees -- Tom Daschle, most notably -- were forced to withdraw after revelations of tax evasion and connections to special interests. Obama accepted responsibility and simply stated, "I screwed up." To dodge would have been to go back on the premise that good leadership requires humility. Projecting his own recognition of human foibles will likely continue to be part of his model for governing.

Assessing his own performance honestly is about more than rhetoric. It's the essence of good governing. For government to have legitimacy and be able to institute programs like an economic stimulus or health-care reform, a leader must not simply set realistic expectations but reconnect citizens with their government -- that's the lesson Carter learned. To set expectations, a leader must be chastened. Americans need "confidence," Obama recognized, but the confidence should not take the form of triumphalism or seeing America as a city on a hill, blessed into a state of perpetual innocence.

Obama's chief challenge at the moment is to do what Carter couldn't -- yoke the talk with concrete action. Instead of just exhorting national sacrifice, he must craft policies that bridge the gap between the federal government and average citizens. Obama has already demanded a limit to executive pay in future stimulus payments. It would have been nice, as sensible critics like Steven Waldman argued, to see a major public-service initiative tied to the economic-stimulus legislation. But Obama nodded in that direction in his "state of the nation" address on Feb. 24. "I know that the price of tuition is higher than ever, which is why if you are willing to volunteer in your neighborhood or give back to your community or serve your country, we will make sure that you can afford a higher education," he said.

It's not hard to imagine Obama revisiting Carter's original hope of addressing the energy crisis by carving out a role for citizens with community programs dedicated to promoting individual conservation. Or a health-care reform bill that alleviates young doctors' debt so they can serve low-income patients. Programs like these would also lay the groundwork for the eventual day of reckoning -- the need for higher taxes to rescue the government from a mounting deficit.

Many historians have asked Obama to look to 1932 and Franklin D. Roosevelt's "hundred days" for guidance. But 1979 is a lot closer to our own times, both literally and figuratively. We live in a country that is post-Vietnam, post-Watergate, and now post-Iraq. Distrust of government prevails, much more than it did in FDR's day. Remembering Carter's speech in this context should force progressives to recognize a missed opportunity -- to set out a vision of civic sacrifice, chastened leadership, and realism that might get us through the "crisis of confidence" that clearly stands ahead. It could set the right tone for democratic governance and might, surprisingly enough, have political payoff.