On June 15, 1979, President Jimmy Carter spoke on live television from the White House, as he had done many times throughout the first two and a half years of his presidency. But this speech would be different. Rather than address any particular policy or issue, such as high gasoline prices or stagflation, Mr. Carter made clear to his audience he wanted to transcend the usual narrow focus on “what the government thinks or what the government should be doing.”
“I want to talk to you right now about a fundamental threat to American democracy,” said the president as he pounded his fist for emphasis. “The threat is nearly invisible in ordinary ways. It is a crisis of confidence. It is a crisis that strikes at the very heart and soul and spirit of our national will. 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 president went on to chide Americans for filling their souls with materialistic things, a departure from the respectful ways that made the country great and strong. The initial public reaction was positive. It did not last. As historian Sean Wilentz wrote in “The Age of Reagan,” soon commentators and editorialists attacked Mr. Carter’s sanctimonious sermon as a strange way for the country’s leader to lead during a time of economic crisis. Mr. Carter’s approval ratings had been under water for most of his presidency, and as the “malaise” speech was still sinking in, he provided more ammunition for critics who questioned his ability to steer the ship of state: He fired most of his Cabinet.
By the end of the year, an overseas crisis made matters worse for a president who had promised to restore America’s global standing after the years of Watergate and Vietnam. In early November 1979, young militants took 66 Americans hostage at the U.S. embassy in Iran, the opening chapter in an episode that would dog Mr. Carter until the last minutes of his term.
Mr. Carter may have been a bad president, but he certainly had plenty of bad luck. In this episode of History As It Happens, historian Scott Kaufman compares and contrasts Mr. Carter’s miserable term with the ups and downs of President Biden’s first two years in office. Both men faced economic problems largely outside their control as well as painful retreats abroad, and they each struggled in their own way to convince Americans they could tackle the nation’s problems. Mr. Biden’s approval ratings are stuck in the mid-40s.
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“I’ve been thinking about the issue of messaging. One of things I am critical of Carter about is that Americans like a president who can offer a vision, an idea of where he plans on taking the country. Carter had a difficult time promoting a vision, and while Joe Biden did have one – Build Back Better – it seemed to disappear,” said Mr. Kaufman, the author of “The Presidency of James Earl Carter, Jr.”
There are obvious differences between the two men. Mr. Carter was an anti-Washington politician who pursued a brand of “anti-politics.” Mr. Biden, on the other hand, is an ultimate Washington establishment figure, having spent most of the past half century in the halls of power.
Is Mr. Biden destined to follow in Mr. Carter’s footsteps as an unpopular, one-term Democratic president? Listen to this episode of History As It Happens.