When President Obama begins his State of the Union address Tuesday night, listen closely and you’ll hear echoes of Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, and many of the presidents who preceded him to the podium. Listen particularly hard when he says the word “new.” For when it comes to this annual address there is no word more favored by this president — and all his predecessors — than “new.”
In his previous four State of the Union speeches, it popped up 132 times, topping out at 42 instances in 2011 and 34 last year. And that doesn’t even rank Obama at the top of the presidential heap over the last six decades. President Clinton was the champion of “new” with 275 usages, including 53 in his 1998 address. Dwight Eisenhower was next with 171 citations, then Obama, followed by Nixon with 119 and George W. Bush with 101. At the bottom is Carter with only 36 “news” in his three speeches. Surprisingly, it was a two-term president, Ronald Reagan, who shunned almost all things “new” in his speeches. Reagan said the word only 42 times in seven addresses.
Except for Reagan, all of the last 11 presidents have tried to use their annual trip to Capitol Hill to appear activist, engaged, and forward-looking — all things that speechwriters try to capture with the word “new.” Combine that with presidential envy of Woodrow Wilson’s New Freedom, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, and John F. Kennedy’s New Frontier, and you’ve got dozens of failed attempts to sell fresh and snappy terms.
But, as Obama has learned, “new” doesn’t always mean new. Presidents — sometimes without even realizing it — borrow phrases and ideas from their predecessors. Expect to hear this president use his speech this year to push Congress to make 2014 “a year of action.” It’s a phrase he previewed earlier this month. But there is nothing new here. It is borrowed. Credit Nixon for this one. In his State of the Union in 1972, he complained that Congress had ignored his legislative agenda over the past 12 months. That, he said, had been “a year of consideration.” But, he added, “Now, let us join in making 1972 a year of action on them, action by the Congress, for the nation, and for the people of America.”
Presidents are “always looking for a simple, easy-to-remember message on top of all their policy proposals,” said William Galston, Clinton’s chief domestic policy adviser. “Something that not only gives some rhetorical lift but gives the people listening to the speech the impression that it all ties together, that all these specific ideas are in pursuit of a common goal or a common vision.” Galston added, “Underlying that is the message of leadership — ‘Hey, I know what I am doing. I am here for a purpose. I’m a clear-eyed, goal-oriented, mission-oriented leader.’ And a good slogan can convey all of that.”
That has given us Clinton’s New Covenant, Nixon’s New Federalism, and Carter’s New Foundation, all terms unveiled in a State of the Union address. Carter’s was perhaps the most unfortunate in 1979. He used the term five times and the word “foundation” 13 times. But only three days later — after much mocking that a “new foundation” had something to do with women’s undergarments — Carter cast the campaign aside, telling reporters, “I doubt it will survive. We are not trying to establish this as a permanent slogan. It was the theme that was established … for one State of the Union speech.” Forget that the White House had, indeed, been selling it as a permanent slogan.
Just as advertisers now use the Super Bowl to unveil new products, presidents use the State of the Union to pitch new slogans. Some that have failed almost as miserably as New Foundation in recent decades have been New Partnership (offered by at least four presidents), New Federalism, New Beginnings, New Road, New Approach (paired by three presidents with policy toward Latin America), New Direction, New American Revolution, New Balance, New Spirit, New Spirit of Partnership, New Challenge, and New Covenant.
There has been so much repetition that even Carter’s unlamented New Foundation was recycled by none other than the current president. In his first inaugural address, Obama declared, “The state of our economy calls for action: bold and swift. And we will act not only to create new jobs but to lay a New Foundation for growth.” Obama then devoted a later speech to the concept of a New Foundation and used the phrase dozens of times until the White House became convinced nobody knew what it meant and switched to “Win the Future.”
He is hoping for better luck with his borrowed “Year of Action.”