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What Obama could learn from Carter

Walter Shapiro argues that Barack Obama should take a page from Jimmy Carter's book, or at least his speeches. Somewhat counterintuitively, Shapiro argues that Obama should look to Carter's "malaise" speech for inspiration. That speech, as some of you know, never used the word "malaise," but did address energy independence, and was wildly popular when it was delivered in 1979. Historian Kevin Mattson tells the story well:

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."

So: Leveling with the American people about the costs of fossil fuel dependence? Good. Firing your entire Cabinet and throwing the government into chaos? Not good.

By Ezra Klein  |  June 15, 2010; 12:40 PM ET
Categories:  History  
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Comments

"So: Leveling with the American people about the costs of fossil fuel dependence, good"

I may be wrong, but I'm suspecting that the Jimmy Carter "malaise" speech has evolved to have a life of its own, and any thing that resembles it too closely is going to be spun as "blaming the American people" rather than trying to inspire them. Thus, Obama making a malaise speech will suffer, via guilt by association, the negative impact of Carter going whackadoodle and firing his entire cabinet.

Posted by: Kevin_Willis | June 15, 2010 12:58 PM | Report abuse

Carter put a lot of effort and money into public transportation. I was able to keep several different jobs as a teenager because of county-wide bus service created by a grant from the federal goverment. Those buses were filled with businessmen and lawyers coming to work downtown. Too bad that initiative fizzled when Reagan came into office and shared sacrifice gave way to individual greed.

Posted by: wd1214 | June 15, 2010 1:15 PM | Report abuse

"and shared sacrifice gave way to individual greed"

That was about the same time thoughtful observation gave way to boring cliches.

I know. I was there.

Posted by: Kevin_Willis | June 15, 2010 1:18 PM | Report abuse

"That was about the same time thoughtful observation gave way to boring cliches.

I know. I was there."

Not only were you there, you probably wrote the book on the subject.

Posted by: slag | June 15, 2010 1:26 PM | Report abuse

@slag: "Not only were you there, you probably wrote the book on the subject."

Maybe I did. Maybe I didn't. But you shouldn't judge a book by it's cover. And, as for myself, I should always keep in mind that it's easier to catch flies with honey than it is with vinegar. Still, there's more than one way to skin a cat.

That's all I'm saying.

Posted by: Kevin_Willis | June 15, 2010 1:37 PM | Report abuse

i am a collector and appreciator of rare fossils, and there is a website that is called www.PrehistoricFlorida.com.
they sent something today about the time from which their artifacts originated, and some new artifact photos.
on the eve of the "british petroleum speech," and what we face now, what they wrote, puts things in an interesting light, so i thought i would share it here:

"Please take a step back with us to a time when herds of horses, camels, and mammoths wandered Florida’s open plains and savannas while jaguars stalked tapir and peccary in our swamps and hardwoods. At the end of the last Ice Age, Florida’s landscape was vastly different from what we see today. Florida’s seemingly endless miles of rivers serve as a time machine which offers a glimpse into how life used to be in the Sunshine State."

Posted by: jkaren | June 15, 2010 1:49 PM | Report abuse

"And, as for myself, I should always keep in mind that it's easier to catch flies with honey than it is with vinegar. "

Why would I want to catch flies? And even if I did, we all know there's something that would work even better than honey

Posted by: zimbar | June 15, 2010 2:08 PM | Report abuse

There's more than one way to skin a cat. None of them particularly good for the cat.

Posted by: jeirvine | June 15, 2010 2:28 PM | Report abuse

It is now generally forgotten that one of Obama's campaign pedges was to make the USA energy independent within ten years. It will be interesting to see whether his speech tonight revives that pledge.

Part of the reason Carter's energy pledge was initially so popular was that the country had endured several years of price shocks at the pump, as well as shortages and even rationing. We had runaway inflation by the late 70's that was largely the consequence of the oil cartel squeezing supplies and inflating the price of oil. Americans were sick of the personal and national economic cost of oil dependence.

While everyone is shocked at the Gulf disaster, nothing motivates Americans like their pocketbooks, and it would be a neat trick if Obama could build support for pricing carbon as part of a strategy to tear free from oil dependence. His challenge today is quite different from Jimmy Carter's in 1979.

Posted by: Patrick_M | June 15, 2010 2:35 PM | Report abuse

jkaren,

Let's all hope that the bluefin tuna and gulf shrimp are not immediately headed in the same direction as the ancient Floridian jaguars, thanks to BP's desire to maximize profits to its shareholders.

Posted by: Patrick_M | June 15, 2010 2:38 PM | Report abuse

What puzzles me is the "[sic]" inserted after a word used impeccably.

Posted by: thehersch | June 15, 2010 3:18 PM | Report abuse

"The speech worked. It prompted an overwhelmingly favorable response. Carter received a whopping 11 percent rise in his poll numbers"

Really? You mean, he went from wildly unpopular to deeply unpopular? And are you really sure about that "11 percent"? See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Gallup_Poll-Approval_Rating-Jimmy_Carter.png

Posted by: ostap666 | June 15, 2010 3:24 PM | Report abuse

slag: *burn*!

Seriously, who the heck fires their entire cabinet 2.5 years into their term?

Posted by: constans | June 15, 2010 6:28 PM | Report abuse

"Seriously, who the heck fires their entire cabinet 2.5 years into their term?"

During 1979, inflation in the United States hit almost 14.6%, and Carter was having great trouble getting his agenda through a Democratic Congress. Carter was trying everything he could to shake up the landscape and to inspire fresh confidence in his leadership in connection with domestic policy.

Although the hostages had not been taken in Iran, the Shah had already fled the country, and that situation was deteriorating rapidly. The Cold War was raging and the US/USSR arms race was of increasing concern.

It was a very rough political environment.

Carter's shake-up was big, but we tend to forget how much more common both true resignations, and top-down Cabinet shake-ups, used to be during past administrations.

Posted by: Patrick_M | June 15, 2010 7:10 PM | Report abuse

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