The Blame Game
At its core, this speech gets to the heart of how we respond to adversity in our lives.
And we're talking about real adversity, not the "my phone is about to die" kind of misfortune which, while certainly frustrating, hardly qualifies as genuine hardship. (Although there's nothing like the cold sweat-inducing panic that losing your charger induces.)
According to the American people, the issue is clear: there's not enough oil, not enough jobs, and not enough economic growth. President Jimmy Carter, however, interjects more than fifty shades of grey into the seemingly black-and-white issue, questioning if it's not our reaction to these circumstances that is to blame, wondering if some of our beliefs and habits aren't at least partially at fault for America's current situation.
Questions About Main Idea
- Who or what was to blame for America's dependence on foreign energy?
- Were Americans justified in thinking pessimistically about their future? Why or why not?
- Why did OPEC have so much power to control oil prices?
- What measures did Jimmy Carter propose regarding energy independence?
Chew on This
President Jimmy Carter committed a major faux paux by ignoring the realities of a struggling economy and blaming the nation's struggles on a poor attitude and lack of confidence.
Carter's calls for energy independence and reduced oil consumption, although largely unsuccessful during his presidency, can be viewed as the first step toward a national discussion on climate change and environmental activism.
Think of the relationship between President Jimmy Carter and the American people as a marriage. For richer or for recession, in oil shortage and in health, by July of 1979, these partners were way past the honeymoon period.
President Jimmy Carter begins his speech by reflecting on what he has learned by listening to the American people. He empathizes with American pain and frustration over the oil shock and economic recession. His solution to these problems, however, speaks more to character and morals than to jobs and oil prices.
That's because the middle of this speech sees a President criticizing Americans for doubting their country's future. He calls out consumerism. He hates on voter turnout. In short, he urges his countrymen to conserve more and to complain less.
In the final section of his speech, Carter outlines specific policy proposals on energy. These proposals all follow a common theme: conservation. He establishes import quotas, vowing to never again use more foreign oil than was used in 1977. He urges Congress to require the nation's utility companies to cut oil use by 50% over the next decade. He calls on every state, city—even individual—to use less and conserve more.
Carter believes that these measures, when coupled with the previously described gut check, will steer America back on the right course.
President Jimmy Carter criticizes American's reaction to the oil crisis; yet what was intended to be a refined criticism is interpreted instead as a crude excuse, fueling tensions between the White House and the American people. (All oil-related puns very much intended.)
- In his speech, President Carter contends that Americans are losing some of the values that have made them great. In particular, he is critical of materialism and consumerism, explaining that "owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning." (34) Do you think America as a nation is becoming too materialistic today? Explain your reasoning.
- Reflecting on your own sense of confidence in the United States, do you think the next five years will be better than the last five? Explain your reasoning.
- Think about Carter's word choice in critiquing the American people. He comments that "two-thirds of our people do not even vote." (32) He says that "the productivity of American workers is actually dropping, and the willingness of Americans to save for the future has fallen" […] (32) If you were his speechwriter, how would you have phrased these concerns to better appeal to the American people?
- Vice President Walter Mondale was opposed to Carter delivering this speech, arguing that the problem was not psychological but material, and that Carter should address concrete concerns like inflation and unemployment in order to rally the American people. Do you agree with Mondale? Why or why not?
- Critics of this speech, especially Republicans like Ronald Reagan, labeled Carter's comments as the "Malaise Speech" or an "exercise in navel-gazing." Considering American consumption habits in 1979, do you think these criticisms are justified? Explain your reasoning.
- In addition to specific policy proposals, President Carter calls on the American people to ration and conserve their resources. He goes as far as calling simple actions, like cutting down on unnecessary trips or using public transportation, "acts of patriotism." (63) Is President Carter justified in asking Americans to conserve and ration gasoline, even if reduces their quality of life?
- Why do you think Americans reacted negatively to the contents of this speech?
- This speech marked President Carter's fifth major speech on the need for energy independence. Why do you think Americans have been slow to transition away from gas and other fossil fuels, despite the fact that we know these are limited resources?