Opinion

The Great Debate

Is this Obama’s ‘malaise’ moment?

Obama addresses the White House Summit on Working Families in Washington

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.

Christie: Crossing the line

Back in the 1970s, a Jewish organization commissioned a poll to investigate anti-Semitism in the United States. The poll included several open-ended questions. One asked, “Is there anything in particular you like about Jewish people?” The answers were recorded verbatim.

One respondent — a worker from Pittsburgh — answered, “What I like about them is that they are hardworking, aggressive and know how to get ahead.” The next question asked, “Is there anything in particular you don’t like about Jewish people?” His answer: “They’re too pushy and aggressive.”

The puzzled interviewer asked, “Isn’t that what you just said you like about them?” The respondent answered, “Yes. What I like about them is also what I don’t like about them.”

But can the GOP revise the party?

The temptation for political parties to rewrite the rules after every defeat is irresistible. The Republican National Committee did not resist when it met in Boston last weekend. The committee passed a resolution aimed at limiting and controlling the 2016 primary debates.

It started way back with Hubert Humphrey, who won the Democratic Party’s nomination in 1968 without running in a single primary. Outraged Democrats rewrote the rules, effectively turning nominations over to primary voters and caucus participants. Their motivation was simple: “No more Hubert Humphreys.”

What they got instead was George McGovern. That did not work out too well, so after the 1972 calamity the party tried again. They changed the rules to dilute the power of ideological activists: “No more George McGoverns.”

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