An embattled president in his third year. A nation in doubt. A tough re-election campaign looming. A big speech to the nation.
President Obama in September 2011? Yes, but also President Jimmy Carter in 1979, during the midst of a national energy crisis, with public confidence low and his own political fortunes ebbing.
Carter’s speech, delivered in the Oval Office, attempted to signal a cultural shift, as the president identified a “crisis of confidence” in the nation and called on Americans to embrace a new personal philosophy of restraint and self-discipline.
“It is a crisis that strikes at the very heart and soul and spirit of our national will,” a solemn-looking Carter said. “We can see this crisis in the growing doubt about the meaning of our own lives and in the loss of a unity of purpose for our nation.”
The address came to be known as the “malaise speech,” even though Carter didn’t use that word.
Obama is not Carter. But when asked if there were historical parallels between the high stakes Obama is facing in his big jobs speech to Congress at 7 p.m. next Thursday, some presidential historians made the connection to Carter’s moment three decades ago.
“It was a make-or-break speech,” said John Kenneth White, a political science professor at Catholic University. Carter had “gone to Camp David to assess what had gone wrong in the energy crisis, but also what had gone wrong with his presidency, to hit the restart button.”
Obama is scheduled to go to Camp David on Friday for two days, the same day that the newest job report shows unemployment holding at 9.1. percent.
Presidential historians said Obama has raised the stakes by scheduling such a highly anticipated address before a joint session of Congress. An address in the Oval Office could last less than 15 minutes, they said, but gathering both chambers of Congress means the president will have to present something substantial.
“A joint session is a big deal,” said Stephen Hess, a Brookings Institute fellow who advised Presidents Ford and Carter. “He’s got to say something, but the whole problem for him right now is that it is exceedingly difficult for him to say anything that won’t cost money. To that degree, he’s painted himself into a corner. The proposals are already out there…so the question is, Is this too little, too late? Nevertheless, he’s right that he’s got to do something.”
Obama’s handlers have generally shied away from staging him in the Oval Office, in large part because the president “thrives before an audience,” as Hess put it. He has also been successful in using Congress as a foil, as was the case when Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) shouted “You lie!” during Obama’s appearance before a joint session in Sept. 2009 to unveil his health care reform plans.
Hess called Obama a “very good talker,” but he was skeptical how much of a bounce the president could get from the speech.
“George W. Bush used a joint session, as well as a National Cathedral event, and an on-the-ground speech [in New York] to rally the nation” after the 9/11 terror attacks, Hess said. But Obama’s address is different. “It’s more like a mid-term State of the Union message. It’s very hard to find a State of the Union message that really made that much difference.”
White said Carter got a bounce after his “malaise” speech. Obama, White said, is different than Carter because he still has stronger support from his base than Carter did and he is still well-liked personally by the American public. Obama has maintained that personal popularity in the same way Ronald Reagan did during his low moments such as the Iran-Contra scandal, White said.
But, like Carter, Obama must find a way to reestablish control of the public debate about why his administration’s policies are the right ones to pursue to put the country on healthy economic footing.
“One thing we expected from Obama and didn’t quite get was the ability to sustain the narrative,” White said. “It’s very, very important for the president to grab that bully pulpit and microphone and not simply talk about a plan but to talk about bigger things. He needs to talk about commonly held values, need to talk about American exceptionalism, need to draw on lessons from past to propel us into the future. ‘Winning the future,’ whatever happened to that?”
White added, however, that even if Obama’s speech succeeds in putting a new narrative message into the public sphere, he must work hard to maintain it. Carter’s temporary bounce in public support, White said, was quickly erased a few days later when Carter abruptly fired several cabinet members in an attempt to clean house.
In the end, his speech was “remembered as a hallmark of Democratic defeatism,” according to the New York Times.
“In the Reagan years, they had focus groups dial testing every line of Reagan’s speech and knew what worked and what didn’t,” White said. “And what worked got repeated and what didn’t got thrown out. I’m sure the White House will be doing that.”