In Carter's crisis of confidence speech, to what extent did President Carter capture Americans' sense of malaise?  Why was his reaction to his speech so negative?

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Ashley Kannan | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Carter's crisis of confidence speech or the "malaise" speech was the result of the President seeking to crystallize the mood of the nation.  In the wake of the President making another speech on the Energy crisis, he recognized that the public might not be listening to him anymore.  President Carter recognized that there might be a fundamental mistrust in public institutions such as government.   Confronted with his own ratings below those of Nixon during the Watergate Crisis, Carter listened to the words of his pollster, Patrick Caddell:

"What was really disturbing to me... was for the first time, we actually got numbers where people no longer believed that the future of America was going to be as good as it was now. And that really shook me, because it was so at odds with the American character." Caddell argued that after fifteen years filled with assassinations, Vietnam, Watergate, and a declining economy, Americans were suffering from a general "crisis of confidence."

This became the refrain that the President sought to inject into his speech.  He sought to articulate the condition of the public, something that underscored the Energy Crisis, as well as all aspects of the American public's mood at the time.  The President believed the "malaise" that brought about the Energy Crisis was reflective of a general feeling within the public consciousness. As the New York Times headline ran after the speech, "Speech Lifts Carter Rating to 37%; Public Agrees on Confidence Crisis; Responsive Chord Struck."  It was seeking to strike this chord that the President sought to capture a sentiment that allowed situations like the Energy Crisis to reach the levels it did. President Carter believed that being able to reveal this reality would cause Americans to rethink their own habits and bring about the changes to their own consumptive levels.  In doing so, the President believed that he could walk a tightrope that articulated the public mood and triggered reflection which could alleviate the crisis of energy enveloping both his nation and his administration at the time.

Initial reaction to the speech was positive.  Yet, over time, the speech came to symbolize much in way of negative reaction towards Carter's ideas and his Presidency.  On one hand, Carter's actions after the speech did not fill the public with confidence.  His demanding of resignations in the wake of the speech from Cabinet officials was not received well.  The public perceived it as poor management, and interpreted the internal discord as almost a confirmation of the malaise element in the White House as well as in American society.  

On a larger level, the negative reaction to the speech was enhanced by what was known as a "boomerang effect."  In other words, the speech backfired on the President.  It came across to the public that the President was blaming the people for the nation's problems. Language choice such as "crisis, "confidence," and "consumption" and "self- indulgence" did not resonate well in the long term with the American public.  Combined with the President's actions with his Cabinet, the speech's reaction amongst the public became decidedly negative:

"it boomeranged on him. The op-ed pieces started spinning out, 'Why don't you fix something? There's nothing wrong with the American people. We're a great people. Maybe the problem's in the White House, maybe we need new leadership to guide us.'"

The President's speech evoked such negative reaction because Carter never quite made the leap towards invoking the "greatness" of American character. The idea of American "malaise" was emphasized so much that there was little in way of hope or redemption, helping to write the narrative of Republican challengers such as Ronald Reagan.  This negative reaction to the speech was driven by its absence of "greatness."  As Carter's administration continued to flounder on both substance and delivery of message, the void became wide enough for someone like Ronald Reagan to enter with a message of unabashed exceptionalism, one that appealed to the American public tired of being burdened with Carter's "malaise" label. 

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