Obama echoes Carter’s ‘malaise’: US has ‘gotten a little soft’

Neil Munro White House Correspondent
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President Barack Obama told a Florida TV station yesterday that the United States is facing economic difficulties because it has “gotten a little soft” during the last 20 years.

“This is a great, great country that had gotten a little soft and we didnʼt have that same competitive edge that we needed over the last couple of decades,” Obama said.

The fix is that “we need to get back on track,” he said, while urging Congress to pass his new $447 billion one-year stimulus bill.  (RELATED: Biden says voters should look at Obama, not Bush, when it comes to economy)

The apparent dismissal of Americansʼ efforts since 1990 may spur further criticism of Obamaʼs economic policies, under which unemployment has grown to 9.1 percent and the national debt has grown by more than $4 trillion. The stalled economy has pushed his poll ratings below 40 percent, cracked the confidence of his political supporters and pushed many swing-voting independents towards the GOP.

Although he said the country has gone “soft,” the president also professed confidence in the nation. “We’re getting back on track. I would not trade our position with anybody on Earth,” he said.

“We still have the best universities, the best scientists, best workers in the world; the most dynamic economic system in the world. We just need to bring all those things together,” he said. The statement matches his routine emphasis on government management, rather than the free market — which has produced a series of revolutionary companies since the Cold War was won in 1989. These companies include Microsoft and SiriusXM, Google and Facebook, Wal-Mart and Whole Foods, Apple, Amazon and eBay, along with drone-maker General Atomics and navigation device maker Garmin.

Obama also complimented young Americans, saying “theyʼre so incredibly talented, they give you confidence that theyʼre going to help figure this out and maintain our number-one status.” His poll ratings among younger voters have slid, along with his polling support among Latinos, African-Americans and white voters.

Obamaʼs “soft” comment, and its political circumstances, echo a controversial speech by then-President Jimmy Carter. In July 1979, Carter declared 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.”

The speech was later dubbed the “malaise speech,” even though it did not use the word.

Carter gave the speech as his polls were falling, and the countryʼs economic crisis was worsening while energy prices rose.

“The solution of our energy crisis can also help us to conquer the crisis of the spirit in our country,” Carter said. prefiguring Obamaʼs emphasis on using government experts and more than $70 billion taxpayer dollars to create a new “green energy” industry.

Republicans presidential candidate Ronald Reagan subsequently used the speech as a foil for his more confident vision of American potential. Reagan carried 44 states in the 1980 election.

Obamaʼs comment came six days after African-American leaders criticized his seeming dismissal of their complaints about the very high level of black unemployment — at least 16 percent — in the U.S.

“I expect all of you to march with me and press on” he said, speaking in the manner of a preacher. “Take off your bedroom slippers, put on your marching shoes. Shake it off. Stop complaininʼ, stop grumblinʼ, stop cryinʼ.”

Obama was speaking at the annual dinner held by the Washington, D.C.-based Congressional Black Caucus Foundation.

The statement was publicly disputed by some prominent people in the African-American community, such as TV journalist Tavis Smiley. “How does he get away with saying this to black folk, when he would never form his lips to ever say that to any other constituency?” Smiley said.

White House spokesman Jay Carney sought to tamp down the dispute yesterday. “I have heard him make similar comments to all sorts of different groups … Heʼs certainly used vivid language, similarly vivid language, before a variety of audiences,” he said at the midday press conference.