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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.

By E.J. Dionne  | April 29, 2009; 8:51 PM ET
Categories:  Dionne  | Tags:  E.J. Dionne  
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Perhaps there are other significant ways in which "The New Foundation" is shrewdly "conservative" in "feel".

Recall Christ's parable about the inevitable consequences of building one's house on either sand or rock -- of having a sure foundation.

Also recall the psalm text(just recited with joy in many Christian Easter services) about how
The stone the builder rejected has become the cornerstone. By the Lord has this been done. It is glorious in our eyes.

Reportedly when Renaissance/Reformation-era Elizabeth I unaccountably survived long enough to assume the English throne after her half-sister "Bloody Mary" died, this was the verse with which she greeted the news she would now assume the reins of state.

Then ensued the (mostly) Golden Age (which also gave us Shakespeare), a long period of (relative) peace and prosperity in England at an otherwise tumultuous time (when fears about national security were also rife) in Western European history.

Posted by: seattle11 | April 29, 2009 11:11 PM | Report abuse

Republicans haven't figured it out yet third strike and the Fat Lady has already sang, it's over and time to rebuild a new. Now Fox News Station didn't disrespect Bush as when the Press reported his 100 days it ended up looking like fools. It's ok to not like any President but to show disrespect shows who Christian people really are. Like it or not Obama will succeed and that is a fact. Sen. Specter got tired of the idiots and others will follow. The Republican Party once stood for honesty and values but after 8 years of Evil and Lies only the idiots will remain. There is an honesty educated Republican who will lead the Party again, but right now it's run by stupidy ignorant people who only see Greed. Once Republican Majority LeaderJohn Boehner said Climate change was only from Cow Gas that did it for me.

Posted by: qqbDEyZW | April 30, 2009 12:32 AM | Report abuse

If one does not have a good foundation, nothing else matters. The whole building will collapse now or later, but it will collapse. The last 8 years have rotted our country's foundation to the core. We need a new foundation.

Posted by: chlind | April 30, 2009 12:42 AM | Report abuse

Well, in one sense at least you can accurately say that Obama is building a foundation - he is digging an enormous hole. THe problem is that everything else is only the glitz without any real structure.

Posted by: ghassell | April 30, 2009 9:10 AM | Report abuse

Your architectural metaphors seem mixed on your title given on your newspaper's home page, Mr. Dionne: a basement is different from a foundation, and our new President is selling not the former, but the latter.

Because of the econonic "hole" we were in from the last Administration (after eight years in office, massive economic collapse and a trillion-dollar deficit to hand off to the new Administration -- and this after having inherited a surplus from the President in office eight years before that), our new Administration will now for a long time be denied any opportunity to offer Americans "bargain-basement" prices on anything. So what's now needed is just what our new President said: a new "foundation".

Posted by: seattle11 | April 30, 2009 1:34 PM | Report abuse

I think it was FDR who had the NEW DEAL. Much of it was ruled unconstitutional by the SCOTUS. The NEW DEAL looked a great deal like the current stimulus. New Deal did not work, but World War II provided the jobs and industry that got us on a good economic footing and also allowed for the transition from an agriculture base to an industrial base. We need to get back to our industrial base. The Great Society was LBJ and it's about bankrupted the country.

Posted by: RichardBunn | May 1, 2009 8:49 AM | Report abuse

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