A somber Labor Day and thoughts of Jimmy Carter

Labor Day today – America’s First of May – but it is somber and gloomy, no music orchestras and no marches, no resounding speeches and appeals, like in the Stockholm of my youth.

At dinners recently here in Washington, old journalist friends, lawyers, lobbyists, all of them passionately interested in politics and in the future of America, are worried — zero job growth, unemployment stuck at 9.1 percent, which means 14 million unemployed plus 9 million who have had to settle for part-time jobs, and over 6 million who are no longer looking job. “Not since World War II,” writes Robert J. Samuelson in today’s Washington Post.

Like most people of Greater Washington, my friends are Democrats and voted for Barack Obama in 2008. They still like him, but they are troubled, even disappointed, in his leadership and his willingness to compromise with the Republicans. They want him to stand up and fight for what he believes in and for what is right. Obama should know by now that it is futile to try to work with Republicans and the tea party movement, for they hate him. Their goal is to ensure that Obama is not re-elected next year, and any compromise that might help him must be avoided.

My friends hope that in his speech on Thursday before Congress Obama will be bold and grand and revive their enthusiasm for him and bring optimism back to this country. But they are not sure, burned by last year’s budget deal and last summer’s debt crisis. They don’t know if Obama has it in him.

And so the dreaded name Jimmy Carter comes up in our conversations, an intelligent and Democratic president, just like Obama, who in 1980 became a one-term president. Obama a new Jimmy Carter? One almost dares not say it. But Jimmy Carter’s famous, or infamous, “malaise” speech in July 1979 contained some things that ring true today:

“The threat is nearly invisible in ordinary ways. It is a crisis of confidence. It is a crisis that strikes at the very heart and soul and spirit of our national will. We can see this crisis in the growing doubt about the meaning of our own lives and in the loss of a unity of purpose for our nation. The erosion of our confidence in the future is threatening to destroy the social and the political fabric of America.”

Carter’s speech was no hit. On the contrary, it contained little of what the American voters wanted to hear, and they didn’t even think it was true. And so they elected the eternal optimist Ronald Reagan President the following year.

Thursday is an important day for President Obama, and for America.  And I still have hope.