Former president of the United States, Jimmy C...

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You probably haven’t noticed this. But for some time now President Obama has been touting a Kennedyesque catchphrase for his programs: the “New Foundation.” He unveiled this last year, to some modest praise and derision. The phrase has yet to capture the imagination of the public or media, but it was back this week – tentatively – in the State of the Union address: “The only way to move to full employment is to lay a new foundation for long-term economic growth, and finally address the problems that America’s families have confronted for years.”

Peggy Noonan picked up on this, and is skeptical:

They’ve chosen a phrase for the president’s program. They call it the “New Foundation.” They sneaked it in rather tentatively, probably not sure it would take off. It won’t. Such labels work when they clearly capture something that is already clear. “The New Deal” captured FDR’s historic shift to an increased governmental presence in individual American lives. It was a new deal. “The New Frontier”—we are a young and vibrant nation still, and adventures await us in space and elsewhere. It was a mood, not a program, but a mood well captured.

“The New Foundation” is solid and workmanlike, but it attempts to put form and order to a governing philosophy that is still too herky-jerky to be summed up.

I agree. Even the most formidable political branding operation in American history can’t force a lame catchphrase on the American people – thank God. Forty years from now, when that era’s version of “Mad Men” about the Obama years is a big hit, “New Foundation” might show up as the phrase that Future Don Draper dismisses contemptuously before sending his minions back to the drawing board.

Whether old or new, foundations are of course essential. It’s nice to know they’re there. But let’s face it: they’re built in the dirt. And once they’re finished, you don’t have to think about them again. Unless there’s a disaster of some kind that cracks the foundation. In which case the builders are in for it.

But the biggest problem is historical, and subliminal: Jimmy Carter used the same catchphrase in the 1979 SOTU. Apparently the invention of speechwriter Hendrik Hertzberg, now of New Yorker fame, “New Foundation” was repeated 13 times in the speech, then abandoned a few days later. I’m sticking to my original suggestion to the White House speechwriting staff: please Google all inspirational catchphrases.

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