Is this Obama’s ‘malaise’ moment?
Malaise is back.
President Barack Obama’s situation is getting perilously close to President Jimmy Carter’s in 1979.
Americans see little evidence of an economic recovery, more and more workers are giving up hope of ever finding a job, the burden of student loan debt — now larger than credit-card debt — is crushing the hopes of young people, the president’s signature achievement, healthcare reform, is broadly unpopular, our borders are overrun by migrant children, Iraq is falling apart, Syria and Ukraine are in turmoil and the president seems hapless and ineffectual.
“Malaise” was the term used in 1979 to describe the deep pessimism Americans felt about the way things were going in the country. That year, inflation was soaring, unemployment was rising, the United States faced a debilitating energy crisis, a tax revolt had broken out, Americans were waiting in long gas lines, and Iran had a revolution, further roiling the Middle East.
Carter seemed hapless and ineffectual. When the president addressed the nation on July 15, 1979, he appeared to blame the American people. Carter described “a crisis of confidence,” saying, “We 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.”
Support for Carter was so low that he was nearly overthrown by a challenge in his own party from Senator Edward M. Kennedy. The voters fired Carter in 1980, replacing him with a man who would have been difficult to elect in any year but 1980. But Ronald Reagan offered what the country desperately wanted after four years of Carter — strong, decisive leadership.
Indeed, it was a warning — for him.
Though Carter himself never used the term, the speech was labeled the “malaise” speech. The public reaction was initially positive.Within a few days, however, Carter had demanded the resignation of his entire Cabinet. Americans wanted leadership, and Carter was creating confusion – and seemed to be assigning blame.
Carter was calling attention to an alarming collapse of confidence in institutions. In 1979, Gallup reported deteriorating public confidence in the presidency, Congress, the U.S. Supreme Court, public schools, newspapers, banks, big business, organized labor, even the military and organized religion. The average percentage of Americans expressing “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in these institutions in 1979? Forty-eight. And what is it now? Thirty.
Americans become deeply disturbed if they see events spinning out of control and their elected leaders incapable of managing them. That was the perception that doomed Carter. It is now becoming a problem for Obama.
The American public actually agrees with most of Obama’s policies, particularly his caution in making foreign-policy commitments. They are also terrified of what Republicans would do if they ever took over.
But the public doesn’t see any results. Congress does nothing, and whatever Obama is doing — on the economy, on immigration, in Iraq, in Ukraine — is not making a lot of difference. The New York Times new poll reveals a growing lack of faith in the president and his policies. In this month’s Wall Street Journal-NBC News poll, 54 percent of Americans said they felt Obama cannot lead the country and get the job done.
In 1979, when Carter’s job approval rating was at 42 percent, he was getting 53 percent support from his fellow Democrats and 29 percent from Republicans — a 24 point gap. Obama’s job approval is the same as Carter’s was — 42 percent. But Obama is getting 78 percent support from Democrats and just 9 percent from Republicans — a whopping 69 point difference. Can any leader pull together such a divided country?
Reagan did in the 1980s. But he had certain advantages. One was his personal charm. Even people who disagreed with Reagan tended to like him. Second, Reagan took office in 1981, after four failed presidencies in a row – Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard M. Nixon, Gerald Ford and Carter. So people really wanted Reagan to succeed. Third, the country was less bitterly divided. Now we have a sizeable constituency rooting for Obama to fail.
If Obama were eligible to run again, he would almost certainly lose. Obama’s problems probably doom his vice president, Joe Biden, as well. If Biden were the Democratic nominee in 2016, voters would see it as a third term for Obama.
Is there anyone out there who looks like a strong leader? Right now, people don’t know too much about the potential Republican contenders. But they know a great deal about Hillary Clinton. And what they see is a sharp contrast with Obama.
On every one of nine issues tested in a CNN poll this month, the public thinks Clinton would do a better job than Obama. For example, 63 percent believe the former secretary of state would do a good job handling foreign policy. Just 40 percent say Obama is doing a good job on foreign policy. On the economy, 63 percent think Clinton would do a good job. Just 38 percent believe Obama is doing a good job on the economy.
It would be a stretch to argue that Clinton is another Reagan. But she does project an image of leadership and competence that people don’t see in the current president.
Gallup recently asked Americans to rate the five living presidents. Obama was rated the worst. Carter and George W. Bush were only slightly higher.
Which living president do people consider the best? Fellow named Bill Clinton.
Another Clinton? That doesn’t sound too bad.
PHOTO (TOP) : President Barack Obama addresses the White House Summit on Working Families in Washington June 23, 2014. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
PHOTO (INSERT): President Jimmy Carter announces new sanctions against Iran in retaliation for taking U.S. hostages, April 7, 1980. Courtesy of LIBRARY OF CONGRESS
PHOTO (INSERT 2): President Ronald Reagan, waving to well-wishers on the south lawn of the White House on April 25, 1986. REUTERS/Joe Marquette