In the midst of President Jimmy Carter's economic doldrums in 1979, he sought to restart the nation's engines with a speech in which he essentially accused the American people of losing confidence. Although he never used the word, it was widely called his "malaise" speech, and he caught public hell for it, getting swamped the next year in his bid for reelection.
President Barack Obama, having already gained another term despite a stalled economy in his first, is now embarked on a series of confidence-building speeches of his own. He is blaming not the people but "Washington," or at least the Republican majority in the House here, for the current economic doldrums that have stymied his own change-Washington agenda.
In his opening speech in Galesburg, Ill., Mr. Obama sought to elevate the issue of income inequality to the fore in a reworking of the old class warfare rhetoric that for years has fueled the Democratic political engine. In 2000, though, when Al Gore preached, "They're for the powerful, we're for the people," America wasn't buying, not the way they had done when Bill Clinton ran as champion of the middle class.
Mr. Obama, on taking office in 2009, ran into a buzz saw of Republican congressional obstructionism that he sought to counter in the 2010 midterm elections and failed. He is now repackaging the pitch, putting himself forward as a more conspicuous defender of middle-class needs and objectives.
In Galesburg, he echoed Mr. Clinton in the promise "that your hard work would be rewarded with fair wages and decent benefits," while charging that "Washington doled out bigger tax cuts to the very wealthy and smaller minimum wage increases for the working poor." He lamented an economy "where a few are doing better and better and better while everybody else just treads water."
As income inequality has grown, Mr. Obama charged, "with this endless parade of distractions, political posturing and phony scandals, Washington has taken its eye off the ball." He promised, "I will not allow gridlock or inaction or willful indifference to get in our way."
For himself, he said, "I don't have another election," and declared that he intends to spend the rest of his second term striving "to make this country work for working Americans again." But he actually does have another election facing him. Next year's midterm congressional balloting will probably hold the key to whether his final two presidential years will be boom or bust.
So in a real sense, Mr. Obama's latest round of national pep talks is not unlike Mr. Carter's "malaise" speech, designed to stir a disconsolate people to rally to his side -- not by blaming them, but by cajoling them to light a fire under his uncooperative opposition on Capitol Hill.
It's ironic in a sense that Barack Obama, a much more politically aware president than Jimmy Carter ever was in the Oval Office, should find himself similarly pushing back against a growing public image of ineffectiveness.
Mr. Obama took office facing a much more severe economic crisis in the Great Recession, as well as two hot wars, than Mr. Carter encountered on succeeding Gerald Ford in 1977. Under Mr. Obama's watch, the economy has slowly recovered as he has wound down those two wars, however unsatisfactorily. He was rewarded with re-election, whereas Mr. Carter was unceremoniously dumped after his one term.
Mr. Obama in Galesburg was able to cite creation of 7.2 million jobs since taking office with, as he put it, "deficits falling at the fastest rate in 60 years." He claimed the country is "actually poised to reverse the forces that battered the middle class for so long" and has "started building an economy where everyone who works hard can get ahead."
Be that as it may, seeing is believing, and that reversal is not yet sufficiently recognizable to get this second-term president out of the woods. He still finds it necessary to point to Republican obstructionism as the villain, and as valid as his argument may be, he needs corporate America to start hiring again in a major way to turn the corner on the still sluggish jobs front.