President Obama's 'malaise' moment

In the summer of 1979, a frustrated President Carter made that famous "malaise" speech that probably sank his presidency:

"On the evening of July 15, 1979, millions of Americans tuned in to hear Jimmy Carter give themost important speech of his presidency. After sharing some of the criticism he had heard at Camp David -- including an unattributed quote from the young governor of Arkansas, Bill Clinton -- Carter put his own spin on Caddell's argument. "The solution of our energy crisis can also help us to conquer the crisis of the spirit in our country," the president said, asking Americans to join him in adapting to a new age of limits.   

But he also admonished them, "In a nation that was proud of hard work, strong families, close-knit communities and our faith in God, too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption. Human identity is no longer defined by what one does but by what one owns." Hendrik Hertzberg, who worked on the speech, admits that it "was more like a sermon than a political speech.

It had the themes of confession, redemption, and sacrifice. He was bringing the American people into this spiritual process that he had been through, and presenting them with an opportunity for redemption as well as redeeming himself."

Though he never used the word -- Caddell had in his memo -- it became known as Carter's "malaise" speech."

Fair or unfair, the speech and the word he didn’t use defined President Carter.  He spoke of a "new age of limits" and that just exposed him to attacks from then Governor Reagan, the ultimate optimist about the US.  The US is not a country of "limits."  It does not seem to like leaders who tell them to "downsize" their dreams.

Last week, President Obama looked weary and almost irritated that reality had intruded on his vacation.  I'm not sure who told him to face the press prior to the holiday weekend because he had nothing new to say.  He admitted that we didn't have a strategy to fight ISIS in Syria, a stunning statement given that his Secretary of Defense had warned about the dangers days before.

The Washington Post, a newspaper that endorsed him twice, reminded President Obama that he keeps talking about what the US can not do rather than what we can do:

"Throughout his presidency, he has excelled at explaining what the United States cannot do and cannot afford, and his remarks Thursday were no exception. “Ukraine is not a member of NATO,” he said. “We don’t have those treaty obligations with Ukraine.” If Iraq doesn’t form an acceptable government, it’s “unrealistic” to think the United States can defeat the Islamic State.  

Allies are vital; the United States overstretched in the Bush years; it can’t solve every problem. All true. But it’s also true that none of the basic challenges to world order can be met without U.S. leadership: not Russia’s aggression, not the Islamic State’s expansion, not Iran’s nuclear ambition nor China’s territorial bullying. Each demands a different policy response, with military action and deterrence only two tools in a basket that inclu"des diplomatic and economic measures.

It’s time Mr. Obama started emphasizing what the United States can do instead of what it cannot."

Just as Mr. Carter doomed himself when he talked of "limits," Mr. Obama is dooming himself by acting like the US is not longer relevant or has no role to play.

Yes, the public is opposed to sending troops here, there, and everywhere.  But they want the US to project power and to behave like the superpower that it is

Mr. Obama has a couple of "hellish years" ahead of him, especially if the US has to confront ISIS in Iraq and Syria.   Nevertheless, I think that pundits will look back at this week and say that it was the beginning of the end.  

It was this week that confirmed what a growing number of Americans have been saying around the table:  Mr. Obama is in over his head!

P. S. You can hear CANTO TALK here & follow me on Twitter @ scantojr.

image by Richard Terrell of Aftermath

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