On this day in 1979, President Jimmy Carter addresses the nation via live television to discuss the nation’s energy crisis and accompanying recession.
Carter prefaced his talk about energy policy with an explanation of why he believed the American economy remained in crisis. He recounted a meeting he had hosted at the presidential retreat in Camp David, Maryland, with leaders in the fields of business, labor, education, politics and religion. Although the energy crisis and recession were the main topics of conversation, Carter heard from the attendees that Americans were also suffering from a deeper moral and spiritual crisis. This lack of “moral and spiritual confidence,” he concluded, was at the core of America’s inability to hoist itself out of its economic troubles. He also admitted that part of the problem was his failure to provide strong leadership on many issues, particularly energy and oil consumption.
In 1979, America could still feel the effects of OPEC’s (Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries) 1973 cuts in oil production. Carter quoted one of the Camp David meeting participants as saying that America’s “neck is stretched over the fence and OPEC has a knife.” In addition, inflation had reached an all-time high during Carter’s term. Americans saw the federal government as a bloated bureaucracy that had become stagnant and was failing to serve the people. Politics, Carter said, was full of corruption, inefficiency and evasiveness; he claimed these problems grew out of a deeper, “fundamental threat to American democracy.” He was not referring to challenges to civil liberties or the country’s political structure or military prowess, however, but to what he called a “crisis of confidence” that led to domestic turmoil and “the loss of a unity of purpose for our nation.”
At a time when Europeans and the Japanese began out-producing the U.S. in energy-efficient automobiles and some other advanced technologies, Carter said that Americans had lost faith in being the world’s leader in “progress.” He claimed that Americans obsession with self-indulgence and material goods had trumped spiritualism and community values. Carter, who after the presidency would teach Sunday School, tried to rally the public to have faith in the future of America. After restoring faith in itself, the nation would be able to march on to the “the battlefield of energy [where] we can win for our nation a new confidence, and we can seize control again of our common destiny.”
Carter then launched into his energy policy plans, which included the implementation of mandatory conservation efforts for individuals and businesses and deep cuts in the nation’s dependence on foreign oil through import quotas. He also pledged a “massive commitment of funds and resources” to develop alternative fuel sources including coal, plant products and solar power. He outlined the creation of a “solar bank” that he said would eventually supply 20 percent of the nation’s energy. To jumpstart this program, Carter asked Congress to form an “energy mobilization board” modeled after the War Production Board of World War II, and asked the legislature to enact a “windfall profits tax” immediately to fight inflation and unemployment.
Carter ended by asking for input from average citizens to help him devise an energy agenda for the 1980s. Carter, a liberal president, was heading into a presidential campaign just as a tide of conservatism was rising, led by presidential hopeful Ronald Reagan, who went on to win the 1980 campaign.