Obama’s contribution was to be the New Foundation. “We must lay a new foundation for growth and prosperity–a foundation that will move us from an era of borrow and spend to one where we save and invest,” he declared. Obama would repeat the phrase seven times that day and on many more occasions over the next months. At Obama’s private White House dinner with presidential historians that June, the historians were no more impressed than the public with the New Foundation as a slogan. “I don’t think it’s going to work,” Robert Dallek warned. Doris Kearns Goodwin said it sounded “like a woman’s girdle.”
One of these historians might have been able to forewarn Obama that the slogan had been unsuccessfully deployed by a Democratic president once before. In his 1979 State of the Union address, Jimmy Carter began, “Tonight, I want to examine in a broad sense the state of our American Union–how we are building a new foundation for a peaceful and a prosperous world.” Carter would use the phrase five times in the speech, including in its conclusion, where he asked members of Congress to join him “in building that new foundation.” Like Obama’s effort, the phrase inspired, at most, a few underwear jokes and was then forgotten.
Since I’m about to begin again teaching on the design and construction of foundations, the foundation analogy intrigued me, and not from the underwear standpoint either.
Foundations are a critical part of a building’s integrity; as I like to say, a building is only as good as its foundation. Foundation difficulties (especially settlement) are the chief cause of distress in structures; just think of all of the home foundation and basement repair services.
Foundation remediation, especially of large structures, is expensive and disruptive. It’s done because the existing foundation is either not performing properly (settlement again is the usual culprit) or because either perceived or actual conditions have changed. A good example of the latter is seismic retrofitting. The California Department of Transportation, in the days when the state could afford it, dropped about $10 billion in seismically retrofitting the bridges around the San Francisco Bay area, and are still dickering over the Bay Bridge itself. Usually they were able to modify and add to the foundations and achieve their goals, but in some cases it was cheaper to replace a bridge rather than retrofit it.
The latter result isn’t as unusual as one would like to think. Replacing or upgrading the foundation of a building is frequently so expensive that it’s cheaper to replace the whole building, especially if the structural damage due to foundation failure is extensive.
Turning to politics, I don’t see “borrow and spend” as the foundation of this Republic. It’s better characterised as the misguided MO of the Baby Boomers, but it’s not foundational to this country. That’s one reason why historians don’t go for the “new foundation” argument. It’s a systemic problem that can (if time doesn’t run out first) and should be fixed, but it’s not foundational to our country.
I think it’s reasonable to say, however, that Obama and many of his idea do want a “new foundation” for this country. That’s because many of the foundational concepts we have: inalienable rights (and the source of those rights), absolute property rights and the strict rule of law, are in the way of a statist construct. If that is their idea, then they need to tell us why it’s cheaper and better to install a new foundation rather than to tear the whole edifice down and start over.