The President has made malaise a household word. Ever since Mr. Carter abruptly reversed course on the Fourth of July, cancelling first his planned speech and then his White House scedule in order to conduct a special review of his policies and his presidency itself, the word has been gaining currency. Mr. Carter is widely reported to believe that the nation's energy and economic troubles are part of a larger skein of troubles, that they help cause and also are intensified by what he has identified as a national malaise - diffuse discontent, a lack of confidence in the nation's future and a failure of mutual respect and generosity. It is this larger disaffection of the spirit which Mr. Carter intends substantially to address in his speech tonight - and also in his coming months in office.
The president is certainly right to look at the public and see something short of a national burst of self-sacrifice or a geyser of bouyant good cheer. He is right to believe that there is no end of cynicism and nothing-worksism around, that the gas lines can get pretty pushy and shovey and that you don't hear a lot of people at the bus stops these days nattering about the vitality of the economy or the way we are going to beat the energy troubles. And he has been preceptive in seeing that the particular pressures brought about by the energy shortage work to divide individuals and groups and set them against each other, rather than to mobilize them as one in a great common enterprise.
The question is what weight and value Mr. Carter will give these perceptions and how he believes the public's spirts can be revived. It is possible to overanalyze the national psyche and to overdo this reading of popular despair. In a sense that is at once good news and bad news for the president. It is bad news in that it suggests that some large part of the disafection may be not so much more than impatience and frustration growing out of his own performance in office. It is good news in that it also suggests that the public's spirits are not mired in a long-term despondency of complicated historic causes and so can be restored in fairly short order.
Mr. Carter has evidently taken this as his task, and he hopes and intends, in fact, to use the nation's capacity to lick the energy troubles as the most reassuring kind of evidence that we don't have all that much to be gloomy about, calling on each individual to rally and play a part. This inspiring role is a legitimate and essential duty of his office. Mr. Carter, as he prepares to address the country, also needs to remember, though, that in some respects what the people want and need is something only he can give them: a clear, orderly, plausible policy, confidence that the government has got its energy act together, reason to believe that whatever the sacrifices or short-term inconveniences are, they will be worth it because they will be the price of a policy that makes sense. In this respect the problem may be less burdensome than Mr. Carter had feared - a policy that people can believe in may turn out to do wonders for their mood, even if it costs them something and even if it produces, as it surely will, some sharp disputes.
What people most need to know is that he has chosen something, that he is now prepared to preside over a program that is internally consistent and which has long-term hope of succeeding, of changing the way things are.