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Revisiting Jimmy Carter’s “Crisis of Confidence” Speech

March 8, 2023 by Danny Hastings

On February 18, the Carter Center released a statement saying that former President Jimmy Carter had opted to spend “his remaining time at home” following a number of hospital stays and declining health.1 News of the 98-year-old former president’s condition has brought an outpouring of support and renewed attention to his life and legacy as the 39th president of the United States. President Carter’s “Crisis of Confidence” speech is perhaps his most famous, and its words are still relevant for our country today.2

President Carter delivered this speech, often referred to as his “Malaise Speech,” on July 15, 1979, while the country was in the midst of an energy crisis.3 After spending several days listening to the concerns of everyday Americans, he concluded that America as a whole suffered from what he called a “crisis of confidence.” This, he said, was a “fundamental threat to American democracy.”4

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 erosion of our confidence in the future is threatening to destroy the social and the political fabric of America.5

President Carter went on to explain that people had lost faith in their government, in each other, and in their own abilities as citizens to shape their democracy. He recognized the disconnect between the federal government and everyday communities. People felt like their government was not working for them. They grew tired of inaction, inefficiency, partisanship, and the unwillingness of elected officials to compromise for the sake of the common good. Americans, in his eyes, were skeptical of the future and doubted the progress we had made as a nation.

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.6

These problems persist in our current political climate. According to a recent NBC News poll from the summer of 2022, three quarters of voters said that the country is “headed in the wrong direction,” with 58 percent also adding that “America’s best years are behind it.”7 And although the 2020 election saw record voter turnout, one third of eligible voters still did not vote.8 Trust in government has been eroding for decades. A May 2022 Pew Research poll found that only 20 percent of Americans believed they could trust the government to do what is right “always or most of the time.”9 This is down from 30 percent who said the same at the time of President Carter’s speech.10

Though the main focus of President Carter’s speech was the energy crisis, he was speaking to a country that had experienced political shock and cynicism. It had seen the assassinations of political and civil rights leaders. It had grown disillusioned with the Vietnam War. There was a widespread feeling of distrust in government institutions and elected officials post-Watergate, and people were hurting financially due to stagflation (high inflation, high unemployment, and slow economic growth).

Americans today face their own similar and unique challenges: the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change, high inflation, misinformation, and issues of civil rights and racial justice, among others. Lies about the legitimacy of elections led to an attack on the Capitol and continue to saturate our national discourse. Hyperpartisanship has distorted the way we see each other, and a breakdown in basic levels of decency among individuals and political leaders has furthered the divide between “us” and “them.”

President Carter urged Americans to trust in each other and once again find common purpose in order to overcome this ongoing crisis. To reunite the country, it was imperative to restore our “American values.”11 This would take time and effort on behalf of all of us. “Little by little we can and we must rebuild our confidence. We can spend until we empty our treasuries, and we may summon all the wonders of science,” he concluded. “But we can succeed only if we tap our greatest resources—America’s people, America’s values, and America’s confidence.”12

Discussion Questions

  1. What do you think are the three biggest challenges we currently face as a country?
  2. President Carter saw a “loss of a unity of purpose for our nation.” In what ways are Americans divided or at odds with each other today?
  3. Why might people feel discouraged or disappointed in their government?
  4. Do you agree or disagree with the statement that America’s best days are behind it? Why?
  5. Do you think that we face a crisis of confidence today?
  6. On a scale of 1–5 (with 1 being very low and 5 being very high), how would you rate your confidence in the federal government? Your state or local government?
  7. President Carter believed that Americans needed to “have faith in each other, faith in our ability to govern ourselves, and faith in the future of this nation.” How can we increase our faith in each other? What should we do in order to be more effective citizens?

Other Resources

As always, we encourage you to join the discussion with your comments or questions below.



Featured Image Credit: Photo Illustration by Slate
[1] Carter Center: https://www.cartercenter.org/news/pr/2023/statement-on-president-carters-health.html
[2] New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2023/02/23/opinion/jimmy-carter-malaise-speech.html
[3] Ibid.
[4] PBS: https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/carter-crisis/
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid.
[7] NBC News: https://www.nbcnews.com/meet-the-press/first-read/nbc-news-poll-57-voters-say-investigations-trump-continue-rcna43989
[8] Census Bureau: https://www.census.gov/newsroom/press-releases/2021/2020-presidential-election-voting-and-registration-tables-now-available.html#:~:text=APRIL%2029%2C%202021%20%E2%80%94%20The%202020,by%20the%20U.S.%20Census%20Bureau.
[9] Pew Research: https://www.pewresearch.org/politics/2022/06/06/public-trust-in-government-1958-2022/
[10] Ibid.
[11] PBS: https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/carter-crisis/
[12] Ibid.


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