Tag Archives: Ronald Reagan

Why It’s Always Morning in America: The Legacy of Carter’s Malaise Speech

Thirty five years ago this evening, President Jimmy Carter went on nationwide television to give his infamous “malaise” speech. You can watch the speech in its entirety here.


If you listen carefully, you’ll notice that he never actually uses the word “malaise”. Instead, he talks about the “crisis of confidence” that threatened the nation’s “will” and “unity”. It is an emotionally searing speech, noteworthy for the candor and level of introspection Carter displayed to a national audience that has rarely, if ever, been expressed by any elected official again. Unfortunately, through the years, the “malaise” speech has come to symbolize all that went wrong with the Carter presidency. As a result, pundits – and presidents too – have tended to draw the wrong lesson from this event.

Some context is useful in understanding why Carter gave the speech. Three years into his presidency Carter’s approval ratings had dropped below 30% and were at the low point of his presidency to date. While he was preoccupied with two important overseas trips – one to sign the SALT II treaty with the Soviet Union and then a diplomatic visit to Japan and South Korea – Americans back home were waiting in long gas lines as they suffered through another energy crisis triggered in part by the Iranian revolution that overthrew the American-backed Shah. Initially Carter planned on giving still another speech urging Congress to address the energy crisis, but ultimately he decided that it would be waste of his time, since he had already given several talks on this topic. Instead, he retreated to Camp David, and summoned leading public figures, including many prominent religious leaders, to meet with him to discuss the state of the nation. Then, like Moses coming down the mountain, Carter went on television to give his famous address, one that went well beyond discussing the energy crisis, although he discussed that too. But most of the speech showcased Carter, the former Baptist preacher, as the nation’s “minister-in-chief”, beginning with his self-flagellation as he recounted criticism of his leadership, and then addressing what he believed to be a growing loss of confidence in the nation’s leaders and institutions.

As you might expect, the speech generated a mixed reaction. In part this was because Carter undercut the message of unity by which he ended the speech when three days later he asked for the resignations of his entire cabinet and key White House advisers (he accepted three cabinet resignations). Gallup polling data that I can find suggests a modest boost, from 29% to 32% in his already tepid approval ratings, although the polls are taken so far apart (the first on July 10 and the next on July 30) that it’s hard to know how much movement to attribute to the speech and subsequent firings. (Reportedly, internal White House polling showed a much bigger overnight boost in approval, but this was before the cabinet firings.)

The long-term impact of the speech, however, may have been more significant. Like the ebullient FDR running against the dour Hoover during the depths of the recession in 1932, Ronald Reagan, with his sunny optimism, was immensely successful during the 1980 campaign at portraying Carter as the nation’s “scolder-in-chief” who was too willing to blame Americans rather than his own inept leadership for the nation’s ills. Although polling suggested that many Americans’ views on the issues were closer to Carter’s than to Reagan’s, it did not prevent Reagan from winning the election. When Reagan won reelection in a landslide four years later by campaigning on the “It’s morning again in America” theme, the die was cast. But it wasn’t just Reagan who capitalized on Carter’s failed attempt to level with the public – Ted Kennedy later noted that the speech convinced him to challenge the incumbent president for the Democratic nomination.

Mindful of the purported lesson of Carter’s “malaise” speech, no national candidate would ever again make the mistake of speaking so candidly, and in such critical tones, about the American people even if much of that criticism was self-directed and perhaps even true. Instead, candidates on the hustings are much more likely to take a page from the Reagan playbook by emphasizing the indomitable American spirit, can-do work ethic, etc.  And woe to any candidate who slips up and leaves himself open to the charge that Americans might be at fault for anything, as in this Romney reaction to an Obama statement.  That is the lasting legacy of the “malaise” speech.

Meanwhile, Carter went on to have a much more successful post-presidency – indeed, he has arguably been one of the most effective ex-presidents in history due to his philanthropic efforts through the aegis of the Carter Center.  He has never expressed any regret to my knowledge regarding the “malaise” speech – indeed, the only regret I have ever heard from him regarding his presidency was his failure to include one more helicopter in the ill-fated Iran rescue mission. But that is a topic for another day. For now, let’s remember when it was morning, again, in America.


How One President Spent His Year, Summarized In One Table: Ronald Reagan, 1984

As I wade into drafting the final version of my manuscript documenting the growth of the White House staff, I’ve been working my way through years of archival material I’ve accumulated from visits to 11 presidential libraries (not to mention material from scores of interviews with former White House aides). I thought it might be interesting to periodically present some of the historical documents as I come across them – I’ll try to do this every Saturday. This first installment is from the start of Ronald Reagan’s second term as president.

In January 1985, Don Regan was preparing to transition to his new job as Reagan’s chief of staff, replacing James Baker who was slated to become the Secretary of the Treasury in Regan’s stead. (Baker and Regan, both seeking new challenges, had decided to switch jobs. It does not appear that Reagan gave much thought to the switch which, with the benefit of hindsight, was probably not a good idea. Regan was ill-suited to managing the White House and was largely responsible for allowing the Iran-contra affair to take place on his watch.)

As part of the transition, Regan commissioned a number of studies regarding the various functions of the White House offices, including one from the Scheduling Office, which operated under the supervision of Michael Deaver. Deaver was part of a triumvirate of senior aides, along with Baker and Ed Meese, who served as Reagan’s primary first term advisers at the top of the White House organization. When Regan became chief of staff at the start of the second term, he essentially took on all of their jobs.

Deaver’s primary responsibility was orchestrating the public face of the Reagan presidency, which included overseeing communications, scheduling and travel. Among the many documents Deaver passed along to Regan was this one, which offered a monthly breakdown of Reagan’s schedule, organized by subject matter, for 1984. Note that the summary does not include time spent in his daily staff meetings with his senior aides.  Nor does Deaver (or the aide who created it) specify how the table was constructed.

Reagan's time
Not surprisingly, considering this was a period of escalating tension with the Soviet Union, Reagan spends about 25% of his time dealing with his NSC advisers. Much of that time occurs early in the year, as Reagan struggles to extricate the U.S. from its peacekeeping mission in Lebanon after the tragic terrorist bombing of the Marine barracks there that killed 241 American servicemen.

By the fall, however, Reagan is in full-bore campaign mode, with over 50% of his scheduled time dealing with politics in September, and more than 80% in October. (The Republican Convention that renominated Reagan took place in late August that year.) All told the time Reagan spends in political meetings for the full year equals his time spent on national security issues and together they account for about half his scheduled time. Everything else pales in significance; the third biggest chunk of time is with his cabinet (8%) and the press (8%).

This is just one year from the Reagan presidency, and it is an election year to boot, so I wouldn’t want to generalize too much from Deaver’s chart to other presidencies. But my sense is that the preoccupation with national security issues is not unusual for the modern presidency, in large part because there is no other office that can take the lead in this area. Certainly Congress has proved itself ill-suited to exercise a leadership role in the national security realm. As it turned out, however, Reagan was about to embark on perhaps his most significant foreign policy initiative – the ill-fated effort to trade arms for hostages that ultimately cost Regan his job, and almost cost Reagan his presidency.