Study Guide

Crisis of Confidence Analysis

By Jimmy Carter

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  • Rhetoric


    By definition, rhetoric is at least partially out of the speaker's control. No matter how effective a speaker structures her arguments, it's ultimately up to the audience how to interpret and respond to those claims.

    In his "Crisis of Confidence" speech, President Jimmy Carter attempts to use pathos as a means of convincing his audience, the nation, how to react to the 1978 Oil Shock and subsequent recession. This section will analyze both the intent and the outcome of Carter's appeal to American emotions.

    The Intent

    President Carter's attempt to influence the emotions of Americans is twofold. The first step involves a certain sense of shame or guilt. He wants to point out what he believes to be the problem with America, a lack of purpose, a lack of direction and confidence attributed to an indulgent and nonproductive lifestyle.

    He first attempts to stir up these not-so-pleasant emotions by voicing a little frustration. He says that:

    […] 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. (31)

    The contrast between fading work ethic and growing self-indulgence highlights a decline that Carter attributes uniquely to this current generation. Indeed, he writes that the nation "was" proud of hard work, suggesting that future generations did not, as we do "now" worship such negative behaviors as self-indulgence and consumption.

    Carter continues this shame train, piling on more baggage with the goal of convincing the American public to take stock of their current values. He gets specific and names some of the behaviors he finds at fault, citing how "Two-thirds of our people do not even vote," and how

    […] 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. (32)

    Ouch. You want some aloe vera for that burn?

    After first identifying the problem and stirring up a little guilt, Carter had hoped to capture the American people's attention. With that attention, he sought to play on their pride, and motivate them to change. He views patriotism, or pride in country, as the key vehicle by which to motivate this change in behavior.

    Toward this end, he tries to restore some of that ego he just spent ten minutes tearing down when he says:

    We know the strength of America. We are strong. We can regain our unity. We can regain our confidence. (40)

    More specifically, he appeals to the past, to past generations who endured similar hardships without giving in to indulgence or despair. He says that:

    […] we are the heirs of generations who survived threats much more powerful and awesome than those that challenge us now. Our fathers and mothers were strong men and women who shaped a new society during the Great Depression, who fought world wars, and who carved out a new charter of peace for the world. (40)

    With this comparison, Carter is either seeking to shame current Americans into being as strong of citizens as their parents, or to inspire the present generation by glorifying the deeds of the previous one.

    Either way, no one wants to be upstaged by their parents, right?

    The Outcome

    Carter had hoped that in his two-pronged approach of guilt and motivation, it would be the second emotion—motivation—which would carry the day.

    It didn't.

    People paid less attention to the positivism of "we can regain our confidence" and more attention to the criticism he directed their way.

    It's like when your teacher writes a series of comments on your essay. No matter how many positive things she says, that one point of criticism, that one correction of a misplaced comma is what sticks in your mind. The same is true for the American people. Instead of taking inspiration from the actions of others, Americans focused more on that first part, on the shame and guilt.

    Americans didn't see inspiration in the heroic actions of their parents in the Great Depression. Instead, they wondered why President Carter was drawing unfair parallels between their situation and their parents'. Americans didn't take stock of their actions because of Carter's criticisms about productivity and saving.

    Instead, they felt angry about being judged and put down.

    That transition from guilt and shame to empowerment and motivation failed to take off. Carter's attempt to use pathos stalled out on an island of bad feelings, and the American people wouldn't forgive him for what they interpreted as an attack on their character.

  • Structure


    We know what you're thinking: it's a speech because Jimmy Carter spoke it.

    But it's important to understand why this was spoken as opposed to just written, and why the President himself spoke these words as opposed to a staffer or aid.

    The answer to these inquiries lies in the importance of the speech's subject matter. Energy was absolutely critical to the Carter administration. In fact, it was absolutely critical to the survival of the nation. If Jimmy Carter had simply written the speech and made it available online, one nobody would have read it because there was no internet and two, nobody would have read it because the general population does not read press releases.

    Case in point, when was the last time you read a presidential press release? We're waiting…exactly. Never.

    Now as to why the President spoke it as opposed to an aid or staffer, again the issue of importance comes into play. It's one thing if your brother or sister asks you to clean your room, because you know it doesn't really matter because they have no power over you.

    But if your mom or dad asks you the same thing, now it begins to matter, because they can ground you. While the President can't exactly ground the American people (in fact, the word Constitution never once mentions the word "grounded"), he at least holds the highest position of authority. He has the power to introduce legislation that could either help or hurt the American people.

    So him taking the time to make deliver this speech to the American people directly underscores how important Jimmy Carter took the subject matter, and how equally important he hoped Americans would view the matter—and his interpretation of it—as well.

    How it Breaks Down

    Section 1: Surveying the Mood of the American People

    In Part 1 of his speech, President Jimmy Carter shares with the American people some highlights from his ten-day domestic summit at Camp David, in which he listened to voices from all corners of American society to get their thoughts on the Oil Crisis and the current mood of the country.

    Think of it as show and tell, but with less show and more tell: in this case, he's telling about how other Americans are feeling about the oil crisis.

    Section 2: Facing the True Nature of the Problem

    In Part 2, Jimmy Carter criticizes the American people for their unwillingness to sacrifice in order to shed their dependence on foreign oil. He frames the economic problems of high gas prices and high unemployment more as a moral issue than as a policy concern, citing that these matters are in fact the symptom of a larger problem, a lack of confidence in the contemporary attitude of the country and the direction of its future.

    Think of it as a well-intentioned guilt trip.

    Section 3: Responding to the Country's Issues

    In Part 3, Carter outlines his solutions to America's problems. He explains both his moral and political solutions. Regarding the former, he encourages Americans to draw on their past, to sacrifice in the name of patriotism, and to commit to speaking positively about their country.

    Regarding the latter, he outlines a series of concrete and tangible legislative policies to increase energy independence and decrease the use of foreign oil. Together with a changed attitude, Carter attempts to rally the American people out of depths of recessions by uniting behind a common issue, one that's critical to the success of the nation: energy independence.

  • What's Up With the Title?

    Crisis of Confidence vs. Malaise Speech

    Like Harvey Dent, this speech has two faces—and two titles that it goes by.

    If you support President Carter's message, you might refer to it as the "Crisis of Confidence" speech. The crisis here is Americans' lack of faith in country and self. What's causing this lack of confidence? To put it simply, a culture of consumerism, a fear of hard work and an unwillingness to sacrifice. Carter thinks Americans need to deal with the oil crisis on a moral and spiritual level, in addition to a political and legislative one.

    But the story isn't so simple.

    Those who reject Carter's message, the yin to his "pull yourself up by your bootstraps" yang, refer to this moment by another name, the "Malaise Speech." They see Carter as a hater, and feel that his tone and his criticism is a real buzzkill. So they call it the "Malaise Speech" for the Monday morning vibes it puts out, insisting that the bright and sunny weekend will come out not with a changed attitude but with a changed leader, in this case a new President.

  • What's Up With the Opening Lines?

    Let's look at the first three paragraphs here.

    This is a special night for me. Exactly three years ago, on July 15, 1976, I accepted the nomination of my party to run for President of the United States. I promised you a President who is not isolated from the people, who feels your pain, and who shares your dreams and who draws his strength and his wisdom from you.

    During the past three years I've spoken to you on many occasions about national concerns, the energy crisis, reorganizing the Government, our Nation's economy, and issues of war and especially peace. But over those years the subjects of the speeches, the talks, and the press conferences have become increasingly narrow, focused more and more on what the isolated world of Washington thinks is important. Gradually, you've heard more and more about what the Government thinks or what the Government should be doing and less and less about our Nation's hopes, our dreams, and our vision of the future.

    Ten days ago I had planned to speak to you again about a very important subject—energy. For the fifth time I would have described the urgency of the problem and laid out a series of legislative recommendations to the Congress. But as I was preparing to speak, I began to ask myself the same question that I now know has been troubling many of you. Why have we not been able to get together as a nation to resolve our serious energy problem? (1-3)

    The first paragraph is sort of like a love fest, a pleasant reminder of better days before the oil crisis, when Carter first accepted the Democratic nomination for president.

    After this trip down memory lane, Carter actually has a bit of explaining to do. He's late. And like a student walking into class without a pass, he's got an excuse. No it wasn't a fight in the hallway (although there were fights going happening in the gas lines). Carter tells the American people that he pushed back his speech by ten days in order to reevaluate the issue. He hints at his later message (you know, the whole crisis of confidence thing) by explaining that he just didn't have it in him to give another boring old policy speech.

    He hints at the limitations of laws to address this pressing issue. He sets the stage for his push to deal with the oil crisis on a moral and spiritual level by asking Americans a difficult question, the one they desperately want answered:

    Why have we not been able to get together as a nation to resolve our serious energy problem? (3)

    Of course his answer to this question will surprise—and ultimately offend—the American people.

  • What's Up With the Closing Lines?

    In closing, let me say this: I will do my best, but I will not do it alone. Let your voice be heard. Whenever you have a chance, say something good about our country. With God's help and for the sake of our Nation, it is time for us to join hands in America. Let us commit ourselves together to a rebirth of the American spirit. Working together with our common faith we cannot fail.Thank you and good night. (60-61)

    Carter's last lines have him trying to do for America what Knute Rockne did for Notre Dame: inspire a team to victory.

    And the path toward victory, according to Carter, lies in tackling the oil crisis from a spiritual as well as a political level. His basic point, to buckle down, work harder and sacrifice more, is summed up by his urging all Americans to, whenever they can, "say something good about our country."

    He emphasizes that he can't do this alone, that he needs the support of his teammates (a.k.a. the American people). He claims that to find that end zone, or in this case, to achieve energy independence within the next few decades, the American people need to "commit themselves together to a rebirth of the American spirit."

    This is his game plan: solve the moral crisis facing the country first, then the oil crisis. His final lines serve as an invitation for all Americans to join his team.

  • Tough-o-Meter

    (2) Sea Level

    In the speech "A Crisis of Confidence,"Jimmy Carter is speaking to all Americans, from the Ivy League to the ivy growing in your backyard. He speaks clearly and simply. Even the logic of his speech is straightforward; he outlines a problem (dependence on foreign oil), discusses the reasons for that problem, and outlines specific proposals to solve that problem.

    What makes the speech a "two" on the Tough-o-Meter instead of a "one" is that some of his ideas and proposals require some background in economic policy and a knowledge of what OPEC is, but a part from that, it's smooth sailing (for the reader, that is. We can't say the same thing for America in 1979...)

  • Shout-Outs

    In-Text References

    Historical and Political References

    Camp David (5)
    OPEC (20, 42)
    God (31, 60)
    John F. Kennedy (38)
    Robert Kennedy (38)
    Martin Luther King, Jr. (38)
    Watergate Scandal (38)
    World War II (47)

    References to This Text

    Literary and Philosophical References

    Hendrik Hertzberg, A Very Merry Malaise

    Historical and Political References

    Ronald Reagan, Election Eve Address—A Vision for America

    Pop Culture References

    Devo, Whip It
    The Simpsons, "Marge in Chains"

  • Trivia

    Jimmy Carter vs. The Killer Rabbit: 'Nuff Said. (Source)

    Jimmy Carter appeared in Playboy (with his clothes on, that is). (Source)

    Although it's largely regarded as a failure, to some, the "Crisis of Confidence" speech could have worked with a few changes. Here's how. (Source)

    Today, despite many more cars on the road, the U.S. dependence on foreign oil is actually declining. (Source)

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