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.

Today President Obama gave a speech outlining long-term plans for economic recovery, titled “A New Foundation“:

We must lay a new foundation for growth and prosperity – a foundation that will move us from an era of borrow and spend to one where we save and invest; where we consume less at home and send more exports abroad.

I knew I had heard “New Foundation” somewhere before, and sure enough, a Google search shows that Jimmy Carter used the same slogan in his 1979 State of the Union address:

Tonight I want to examine in a broad sense the state of our American Union–how we are building a new foundation for a peaceful and a prosperous world…The challenge to us is to build a new and firmer foundation for the future–for a sound economy, for a more effective government, for more political trust, and for a stable peace–so that the America our children inherit will be even stronger and even better than it is today.

Of course, 30 years have passed and Carter is an elder statesman. But is the 1979-vintage Carter administration – an era of stagflation at home and humiliation at the hands of Iran abroad – really something Obama wants any association with? Or, to put it bluntly, don’t his speechwriters routinely do a Google search on their slogan-of-the-week? (Alternatively, perhaps they were trying to evoke Asimov’s “Foundation” books, in which wise seers build new institutions to succeed the eroding galactic empire, preventing the total collapse of civilization.)


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