White House

Who Said It, Obama or Nixon?

The answer will be both when Obama delivers a State of the Union speech that uses language of past presidents.

National Journal
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George E. Condon Jr.
Jan. 26, 2014, 10:05 a.m.

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.”


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