Jimmy Carter was the last president to ask the nation for collective sacrifice. Barack Obama ought to do the same.
How should he do so? He should ask Congress to approve an economic stimulus plan and then specifically outline the sacrifices Americans will have to make over the next four years to achieve the national goals he sets for them. These goals include a strengthened military, universal health care coverage, energy independence and a balanced budget.
The president-elect’s stimulus package relies on tax refunds for struggling businesses and a general tax cut for individuals and households. The idea is to generate demand for goods and services. In addition, the government is expected to invest in green technologies and create shovel jobs for infrastructure projects.
Facing such a severe crisis, deficit spending is prudent. However, spending as much as a trillion dollars to jump-start the economy does not address a major problem: how Americans consume and fail to save. Tax cuts and deficit spending are not the type of change Obama promised during his campaign.
On July 15, 1979, Jimmy Carter spoke to the nation in what has since been dubbed the “malaise speech.” In it he said that Americans had lost a unity of purpose for the nation and that we had “discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning. We’ve learned that piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose.”
Energy independence was the rallying point of Carter’s speech. He charted a plan of legislative action to tackle the issue. Next, he asked Americans “for your good and for your nation’s security to take no unnecessary trips, to use carpools or public transportation whenever you can, to park your car one extra day per week, to obey the speed limit, and to set your thermostats to save fuel.”
In that rare moment, Jimmy Carter urged the American people to limit their consumption of oil to achieve a national goal. He asked Americans to think about the balance between individual wants and common goals.
What was the effect of Carter’s speech? Some have interpreted it as showing a generation of politicians never to ask the American people for sacrifices. The unresponsiveness to Jimmy Carter’s speech was also a sign of the times. In 1979, the American people did not want to hear a message about collective sacrifice or limiting their consumption. Carter, right or wrong, was out of step with the national mood.
Barack Obama, by comparison, inherits a country with greater problems. He also inherits a country with millions of citizens desperate to renew a sense of national purpose. Jimmy Carter did not have that reservoir of hope and idealism to draw from.
Obama’s plan to achieve universal health care coverage will succeed if young, healthy people and middle- to low-income adults choose to buy coverage. They must decide to defer immediate gratification of material wants to achieve a collective goal.
In Iraq and Afghanistan, American soldiers a minority among their generation — are fighting two wars. During his presidency George W. Bush made no call on the country’s young people for service. Instead, he cut taxes and asked Americans to go shopping.
In 2009, our overstretched military desperately needs a new crop of volunteers. Barack Obama should set the right tone by encouraging young people to serve. It’s unjust for a small segment of the population, especially its poorest members, to shoulder so much of a national burden.
Nor has the issue of energy independence changed since Carter’s time. The federal government can invest in green technology or transportation infrastructure, but Americans must choose to consume less oil and use more public transportation.
After decades of fiscal profligacy, there is no quick fix to our problems. In the short term a balanced budget may not be possible, but Obama can set the right tone by renewing Jimmy Carter’s call to sacrifice.
Government spending will not solve our problems. The everyday habits of people must change. Washington and the American people must learn to live within their means. That’s why any stimulus plan must have a sacrifice plan as its companion. The American people need a new “malaise speech.”
John R. Bawen is a Ph.D. candidate in history at the University of California-Riverside and a writer for the History News Service.