Carter's 'Malaise' All Over Again? Record Number Believe America's Best Days Are Behind It


A new NBC News survey shows that a record 58 percent of Americans believe that under President Joe Biden’s leadership the country’s best years may be behind it, echoing the sentiment of the late 1970s under President Jimmy Carter.

That finding comes on top of 74 percent saying the country is heading in the wrong direction. Twenty-one percent think it’s going the right way.

“Never before in our poll has this ‘wrong track’ number been over 70 percent for this long. It’s been nearly a year,” “Meet the Press” host Chuck Todd noted on Sunday.

In the poll, which was conducted from Aug. 12 to Aug. 16, 1,000 registered voters were asked, “When you think about the future for America, do you feel more confident that America’s best years are still ahead of us, or do you feel more worried that America’s best years may already be behind us?”

Fifty-eight percent said the best years are behind us, while 35 percent said the best years are ahead. That is the highest percentage recorded going back to 1990. The margin of error for the survey was +/- 3.1 percent.

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In October 2021, 53 percent felt the country’s best years were behind us. In June 2019, prior to the coronavirus pandemic, the number was 51 percent.

In April 1990, respondents were evenly split, with 45 percent believing America’s best years were ahead and 45 percent thinking they were behind.

During the late 1970s, when the nation was experiencing high gas prices and inflation overall, Americans also had grave concerns about their future.

A Gallup poll found that only 12 percent thought the country was heading in the right direction, while 84 percent thought it was off course. Carter’s job approval was at 29 percent.

Are America's best days behind it?

In July 1979, Carter delivered his “malaise” speech — formally titled “A Crisis of Confidence” — from the Oval Office, saying, “The symptoms of this crisis of the American spirit are all around us.”

“For the first time in the history of our country, a majority of our people believe that the next five years will be worse than the past five years,” he added.

Former California Gov. Ronald Reagan’s announcement of his presidential candidacy in November 1979 was in direct response to the nation’s confidence crisis.

“Someone once said that the difference between an American and any other kind of person is that an American lives in anticipation of the future because he knows it’ll be a great place. Other people fear the future as just a repetition of past failures,” he said.

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“There’s a lot of truth in that,” Reagan continued. “If there’s one thing we’re sure of, it is that history need not be relived, that nothing is impossible, and that man is capable of improving his circumstances beyond what we’re told is fact.”

The Republican argued that the real crisis was among leaders in government.

“We are supposed to meekly accept their failures as the most which can humanly be done,” Reagan said.

“They tell us we must learn to live with less and teach our children that their lives will be less full and prosperous than ours have been, that the America of the coming years will be a place where — because of our past excesses — it will be impossible to dream and make those dreams come true,” he continued.

“I don’t believe that. And I don’t believe you do, either. That’s why I’m seeking the presidency. I cannot and will not stand by and see this great country destroy itself,” Reagan said.

Biden finds himself in a remarkably similar position to Carter, with inflation running at a near-40-year high at 8.5 percent and gas prices up significantly since he took office.

His job approval in the NBC survey was underwater, with 42 approving and 55 percent disapproving, which is almost identical to where it was in May.

After defeating Carter in 1980, Reagan was able to help turn America’s economic fortunes around, proving the country’s best days were not behind it.

Inflation peaked at over 13 percent in 1979, and it remained nearly that high in 1980 during the last year of Carter’s presidency.

By 1982, two years into Reagan’s first term, inflation was down to 3.8 percent, and it remained relatively low for the rest of his time in office.

Further, after negative gross domestic product growth in 1982, the economy turned around in 1983, experiencing rapid expansion throughout the rest of Reagan’s first term and strong growth in the second.

During Reagan’s eight years as president, over 18 million new jobs were created, according to CNN, and the unemployment rate fell by half to 5.3 percent.

Reagan took the exact opposite track Biden is taking now by cutting taxes and incentivizing domestic oil production.

At the end of his eight years in office in January 1989, the 40th president proclaimed that America was once again the shining city on a hill the Founders envisioned thanks to the efforts of patriotic citizens.

“We made a difference. We made the city stronger, we made the city freer, and we left her in good hands. All in all, not bad, not bad at all,” he said.

May this history of American renewal repeat itself starting this November.

A version of this article originally appeared on Patriot Project.

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