The result was his most successful and controversial speech, his “Crisis of Confidence” speech, or as the media called it, the “Malaise Speech”. Ironically, the word malaise never appeared in Carter’s address to the nation; for quite some time, it remained a mystery how a negative word became associated with an upbeat speech. In a memo to Pat Caddell, the President’s pollster, Carter used the word malaise as almost an afterthought, and Caddell passed the memo to Elizabeth Drew of The New Yorker, and she used the word in print for the first time in describing Carter’s speech. The word malaise went viral in the media, and that word is still associated with Carter.
So much of what happened involved involved Pat Caddell, who technically wasn’t part of the Carter administration. In 1972, Caddell worked as a pollster for George McGovern’s campaign, and when McGovern came through Georgia to campaign, Governor Carter and Caddell first talked politics together, and it wasn’t long before Carter wanted Caddell in his campaign. Caddell believed that there was a profound sense of alienation towards the government in the American public, a mixed message of despair and hope; Caddell believed that Carter was the right politician at the right time to be elected President (by 2016, Caddell had moved into the orbit of Donald Trump, and was one of the few pollsters to predict a Trump victory, largely because he believed, as in the late-1970s, that a critical mass of Americans still hated/distrusted DC).
Caddell was puzzled over Carter’s diminishing support/popularity despite significant achievements on multiple fronts, and he concluded that Carter had become a hostage of Washington, D.C., Polls as early as December 1977 indicated that Americans liked Carter, but had increasingly negative attitudes about his performance as President. By April 1978, Caddell was convinced that Carter needed to return to his 1976 “thematic” campaign style as President, and stated so in a memo.
Another result of the results of the meeting was that a colleague of Caddell was invited into to serve within the administration, but Caddell had not been invited to do so. So Caddell had, for the time-being at least, an axe to grind with Carter, thinking that the President didn’t truly appreciate his talents, insights, and expertise. Caddell’s polling data picked up an alarming decline in not only Carter’s performance but also a decrease in confidence in the US, both politically and in terms of the nation’s future, which had never been seen in polls going back to the 1940s. Caddell concluded that there were more pessimists than optimists in the US, and he wondered why that was the case . . . it was, according to Caddell, that people were being more selfish, hostile, greedy, thinking only in the short-term. For Carter, who was groping and grasping for a new theme in which to rebuild the foundation of his Presidency, restoring confidence and trust in the government and political process became a new focus.
Vice-President Walter Mondale thought that Caddell was selling a bunch of nonsense, since he believed the pollster lived in the Ivory Tower instead of the Real World, but most those in Carter’s administration at that point had bought into Caddell’s thematic vision. Additional polls by Caddell (and others) had Carter at 30% approval, lower than Nixon’s rating during the nadir of the Watergate Scandal. On 12 June 1979, Carter decided to include Caddell in his Circle of Trust. Carter was all-in on Caddell’s vision, and the President agreed to hear out expert scholars that Caddell had lined up, including the author of The Culture of Narcissism, which depicted Americans as a self-indulgent society . . . but Carter had already come to the same conclusion before he listened to the scholar.
(a top Carter adviser and the author of the book listed above) demanded that Carter return in order to give a nationwide speech on the energy crisis. Caddell believed, however, that another speech on energy would fall on deaf ears, and he made yet another end-run to Rosalynn, trying to get Carter to see that the crisis of confidence needed to be addressed instead; by then some of Carter’s top men also agreed with Caddell (e.g. Hamilton Jordan).
On 23 April 1979, Caddell wrote a memo titled “Of Crises and Opportunities” where he outlined that the crisis of confidence in America had led to a dwindling of faith in the future, and people were struggling to define and understand the malaise which they felt. Caddell in no way blamed Carter for that malaise; rather, he argued that over twenty years of historical forces had not come home to roost on the President’s doorstep. It was a conclusion that Carter wholeheartedly believed, even though the stance was at least partially psychobabble from the academic Ivory Tower that argued for “transformative leadership” to greater levels of motivation and morality. To Caddell, Carter had an opportunity that should not be wasted to create a historical imprint like Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, and John Kennedy.