Barack Obama Goes the Full Jimmy Carter With His "New Foundation"

The perils of rhetorical echoes.


By Robert Schlesinger, Thomas Jefferson Street blog

In his major economic speech today, President Obama promised to build a "new foundation" for the American economy, using a biblical parable to illustrate how his economic plans will set us up for the long term. It's a useful phrase—it bespeaks a long process but with a worthwhile end result.

But he might have chosen a different simile. "New foundation," you see, is a phrase previously employed by Jimmy Carter as his presidency sank into sands.

As I detail in White House Ghosts, it was the brainchild of Carter speechwriter Hendrik Hertzberg and the theme of Carter's 1979 State of the Union address. Carter ended up mentioning the foundation concept 13 times in his speech, for once actually embracing a rhetorical device (a theme). "The problems that we face today are different from those that confronted earlier generations of Americans," he said. "They are more subtle, more complex, and more interrelated.... The challenge to us is to build a new and firmer foundation for the future."

If you don't remember Carter's "new foundation," here's why: While the rest of the administration geared up for a big thematic push around it, the president junked it three days after the big speech, in a press conference. "I doubt if it will survive," Carter said. "We are not trying to establish this as a permanent slogan."

Perhaps President Obama has different ideas.

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