New Foundations and Obama's Style
A few things became clear quickly at President Obama's news conference tonight. First, the administration really is pushing hard to get his program labeled the "New Foundation." Obama used that magical phrase right off in his opening statement. It's a reach for history: First came the New Deal, then the Fair Deal, then the New Frontier, followed by the Great Society. Labels of this sort seem to be a Democratic thing (although Teddy Roosevelt may have kicked it all off with his Square Deal). Bill Clinton tried for a while to sell the idea of a New Covenant, but it didn't take off.
The New Foundation has a couple of things going for it, notably that it can have both an innovative edge and a conservative feel. It means real change, since it implies rebuilding from the bottom up -- changing the way we organize our financial system, provide health care, use energy and educate ourselves. But building a foundation is the most basic and cautious act of all. Architects rarely brag about the foundations of their buildings. Foundations aren't about glitter. They're about the essentials.
Still, I wonder if the New Foundation has the same crisp feel of the New Deal or the romance of the New Frontier. For one thing, it's a mouthful of syllables. It does sound a little bit like a reference to a basement. I'm still not convinced it will stick.
Obama was spot on about the flu fears. He spoke of the need for "deep concern but not panic," which is exactly the right thing for a president to say. He has to show he cares and is on top of things. But he doesn't want to sow fear or insecurity. It was Obama at his calm, reassuring best.
And did you notice what he said about the auto industry? "The unions have made enormous sacrifices on top of the sacrifices already made." So much of the conventional wisdom blames unions for the mess the auto industry is in. Obama, who won last year with strong support from organized labor, is taking exactly the opposite view. The truth is that a restructuring of GM and Chrysler will inflict a lot of pain (and unemployment) on auto workers. It's shrewd of Obama to side with the workers rhetorically. And he's right, too: The unions have given a lot back. It's also Obama's way of bringing subtle (or maybe not so subtle) pressure to bear on the other stakeholders in the industry.
Whether Obama sells a slogan, he has definitely established a tone and a style: careful, deliberate, ready to give long answers in what is supposed to be a sound bite age. Some think he's out there talking too much. I don't think that's true -- yet. He may have explained his approach when he spoke tonight of his effort to "coax" things in the right direction, which takes a lot of talking and persuading. His frequent appearances are making him a comfortable and familiar figure, which may be especially important for those who did not vote for him last year.
We'll know more about this -- about whether Americans are still interested in listening to the president -- when the ratings for tonight's news conference come in. It will be interesting to see how he fares against the ratings that go to Fox (the entertainment network, not the news channel), which didn't carry Obama tonight.
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