The phrase that President Barack Obama used 10 times in his State of the Union address
, and at least five more times during a visit to Wisconsin
on Wednesday, is also the title of a 2005 book by Newt Gingrich. Wherever they are on the political spectrum, it seems great minds agree that America must "win the future."
Gingrich, the former House speaker and habitual Republican presidential prospect, published "Winning the Future" in January 2005. He subtitled it "A 21st Century Contract With America" and laid out his remedies for terrorism, godlessness, flagging patriotism, too much spending and not enough math and science education.
In two days Obama has made the phrase his own and used it to promote his own solutions to the problems he sees. "We weren't aware at first of the Gingrich tie, but it wasn't a concern," White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer told me in an e-mail. He said it wasn't a concern because the phrase is a common one. The White House became aware of the Gingrich connection "recently," Pfeiffer said. Before the speech? Yes.
Among conservatives and in Newtworld, there was chortling and some scorn over Obama's State of the Union theme. "I wrote a book called 'Winning the Future,' " Gingrich said Wednesday on "Fox & Friends." "I love the title. But he didn't tell us anything about winning the future."
My Politics Daily colleague Matt Lewis wondered if Obama's 2012 State of the Union speech would be called "To Renew America" (another Gingrich book). "It's perhaps problematic when your best signature line is the title of a Newt Gingrich book," Lewis tweeted Tuesday night.
In truth, before "Winning the Future" was the title of a Gingrich book, it was the title of another book. The first "Winning the Future
" was published in 1994 by B.G. Verghese
, a prominent Indian writer, historian, economist, political figure and policy expert.
The phrase has turned up periodically since then – as a headline in The Economist over a 1998 piece about the march toward racial, ethnic and gender diversity in sports
, in a 2000 peace proposal
from the president of the Philippines, as the title of a keynote speech about European competitiveness at a January 2005 "Summit for the Future
" in Amsterdam and the title of a seminar at the Central Asia Trade & Export Finance Forum
in April 2005 in Kazakhstan.
Gingrich appears to be the first U.S. politician who took the phrase and ran with it. Dan Kotman, director of online communications at American Solutions, welcomed participants to an internet live chat on the State of the Union by calling Obama's "winning the future" focus "a tad ironic." He then linked to five ideas Gingrich said Obama should embrace
in his speech. Here's what ensued:
Comment from Julie: I would be willing to bet that Obama will not mention one of Newt's 5 focus points. These things are not important to the Left.
Comment from Mark: How about ridding this nation of the IRS and replacing it with a simpler more fair tax?
Comment from Cindy Sue: He would be one sly fox if he did. It would make him look good.
Chalk one up for the sly fox. With some variations, and allowing for their vastly different world views, Obama touched on everything Gingrich suggested. Utilize all of America's vast energy reserves, from wind to nuclear? Check. Tax reform? Check. Leaner government? Check. Education reform to emphasize math and science? Check. Tort reform to cut down on frivolous lawsuits? Check.
"Imitation is the greatest form of flattery," R.C. Hammond, a spokesman for American Solutions, said Wednesday. "If stealing Newt's good ideas helps the country, that is a good thing."
The only thing arguably stolen is a three-word phrase, and strategists say the protocol is murky. "Winning the future isn't something that somebody could trademark," said Republican pollster David Winston, a Gingrich adviser. "Having said that, in terms of a major political statement, you need to be careful because you run the risk of it sounding like you lifted it."
There's also a practical consideration, Winston added: "When you think you've got the great phrase, the first thing you need to do is Google it . . . just to understand the implications of who you might be associated with. You might be perfectly fine with that association, or you might decide it doesn't work."
Democratic speechwriter Bob Lehrman says some phrases, such as "there's more work to do" or "it won't be easy," are boilerplate that no politician need worry about using. At the other extreme, he told me, was Obama's use of rhetoric from Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick
during the 2008 campaign. Patrick – an Obama friend who shared the same strategist – said it was fine for Obama to use his "just words" riff. But Lehrman called it "really not permissible."
The Obama State of the Union theme is somewhere in the middle -- simple words but "distinctive enough that you would look for a source," Lehrman said. In this case you would have found it instantly. On Wednesday, after the big speech, the Gingrich book was still coming up as the first, second and third hits in a Google search of "winning the future."
The phrase has been so strongly embraced in the last two days by pundits, headline writers and Obama himself that its ownership may be in transition. Assuming two years of Obama exhorting the nation to win the future, that Google fixation on Gingrich is headed for the mists of cyberhistory.
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