Obama, Carter, And The Chipper Gipper

Realizing I am but a lowly blogger and Paul Greenberg is a mammoth Pulitzer-totin’ columnist, I will nevertheless attempt yet again  to criticize the opinion of a man who seems to have (well, his columns read like he seems to have) a firm grasp of “What It Means To Be An American.”

In today’s Joplin Globe appeared Greenberg’s already out-of-date commentary on Barack Obama’s oil speech last week.  But maybe a chance to resurrect Jimmy Carter once more was just too tempting for our fair newspaper to resist printing a column whose stale-by date had come and gone. 

Here is Pultizer Paul’s opening paragraph today:

Surely it’s just my fallible memory, but I can’t recall a presidential address that has fallen as flat as Barack Obama’s last week, at least not since Jimmy Carter gave his (in)famous malaise speech back in the dismal summer of 1979.

Poor President Carter.  He hasn’t been president for 30 years—thirty years!—but conservatives rarely miss an opportunity to scratch his eyes out anew, usually with a view to tainting a current Democratic president.

The usual mode of attack is to bring up that “(in)famous” Malaise Speech.  The one that supposedly doomed Jimmy Carter’s presidency and put him forever in the pantheon of pathetic presidents.  Greenberg writes that in the speech, Carter’s message was easy to discern:

…that beleaguered president got his message across clearly enough: He was the victim of a crisis of confidence on the part of the American people.

Sorry, your Southern Highness, but that wasn’t the message of the speech at all.  Read it for yourself right here.

The message of the speech—which had as its backdrop the “energy crisis” of the time—no matter what you think of the wisdom of it, was to honestly express to the American people what their president thought was a major problem going forward:

The erosion of our confidence in the future is threatening to destroy the social and the political fabric of America.

He continued:

The symptoms of this crisis of the American spirit are all around us. For the first time in the history of our country a majority of our people believe that the next five years will be worse than the past five years. Two-thirds of our people do not even vote. The productivity of American workers is actually dropping, and the willingness of Americans to save for the future has fallen below that of all other people in the Western world.

As you know, there is a growing disrespect for government and for churches and for schools, the news media, and other institutions. This is not a message of happiness or reassurance, but it is the truth and it is a warning.

Carter’s message in the 1979 speech was not one which attempted to blame the American people for his own problems, as the myth about the speech—told and retold by conservatives—would have it.

How about this paragraph, which could have been written yesterday:

What you see too often in Washington and elsewhere around the country is a system of government that seems incapable of action. You see a Congress twisted and pulled in every direction by hundreds of well-financed and powerful special interests. You see every extreme position defended to the last vote, almost to the last breath by one unyielding group or another. You often see a balanced and a fair approach that demands sacrifice, a little sacrifice from everyone, abandoned like an orphan without support and without friends.

Again, folks, that was 1979.

In any case, the speech itself was very well received at the time. Americans initially responded positively to Carter’s call to renew their “strength in the struggle for an energy secure nation,” and his poll numbers went up 11 points. 

That solidly contradicts Greenberg’s—did I mention he has a Pulitzer Prize?—claim that such honest talk from our presidents “just doesn’t seem to get it done…in flyover country, where introspection may be taken as just an early symptom of constipation.”

Notwithstanding Greenberg’s uninspiring vision of the common folk, the real reason the American people abandoned the sentiments in the speech is because Carter, only two days after the speech, fired his Cabinet, understandably causing the public to lose confidence in his leadership.

As Ezra Klein wrote last year,

The real lesson of that period is that presidents shouldn’t abruptly fire their cabinet and signal that their government has fallen into chaos. Voters, it turns out, have a quirky tendency to find that sort of behavior unsettling.

So, our Pulitzer winning writer from Arkansas, who just doesn’t like Barack Obama’s un-Arkansan—and by subtle implication, un-American—demeanor, has it all wrong about Jimmy Carter’s speech.

But for conservatives, particularly those who feign an unassailable acquaintance with the sensibilities of the American people, the truth doesn’t often get in the way of an opportunity to denigrate a Democratic president, past or present.

Finally, commenting on the American people’s penchant for the positive, for leaders who exude confidence no matter the circumstances, Greenberg said, “we like our leaders chipper, especially when the roof is falling in,” like, he continued,

Ronald Reagan when he inherited the Carter Malaise but acted as if he had just been handed the lead in a musical comedy co­starring Jimmy Cagney — and the happy ending was waiting in the very next reel.

Like any good conservative, Greenberg can’t resist a tip of the cap to the patron saint of deficit spending, Ronald Reagan, especially when attacking a Democrat, whether it be Carter or Obama.

But the truth—there’s that nasty word again—is that on January 28, 1983, Reagan’s approval rating was at 35%, and if an election had been held at that time, Greenberg’s philosophy-hating, non-introspective, flyover-country nobles would have sent the Chipper Gipper back to Hollywood.  As it turned out, the economy improved and so did Reagan’s approval ratings.

You see, it’s not cheery, starry-eyed optimists we want, Mr. Greenberg, it’s results. Carter didn’t bring us any and Reagan did.

And Obama has only been in charge about a year and a half.

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