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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Car + Ditch=Blame

We’ve already written about the 17-minute Obama campaign film. But did you notice how narrator Tom Hanks portrays the president as being above finger-pointing politics, claiming Obama “would not dwell in blame” for inheriting a huge economic mess? We did.

Hanks, “The Road We’ve Traveled”: Not since the days of Franklin Roosevelt had so much fallen on the shoulders of one president. And when he faced his country, who looked to him for answers, he would not dwell in blame or dreamy idealism.

As Hanks speaks, viewers see photos of the president preparing to deliver his inaugural address, and then a short clip from his speech. And, in fairness, it’s true that Obama did not blame outgoing president George W. Bush or the Republicans for the deepening recession in his speech — not surprisingly, since the address is traditionally a time to unite the country. But in numerous public statements over a course of many, many months, Obama used a metaphor to repeatedly cast blame for the economic mess.

Perhaps you remember it? It involved a car and a roadside ditch.

Obama, May 13, 2010: So after they drove the car into the ditch, made it as difficult as possible for us to pull it back, now they want the keys back. (Laughter.) No! (Laughter and applause.) You can’t drive! (Applause.) We don’t want to have to go back into the ditch! We just got the car out! (Applause.)

The president used the metaphor at least 72 times by our count. It became a staple of his stump speeches during the 2010 congressional midterm elections, including the video above from a May 13, 2010, party fundraiser in New York.

We found 26 unique instances in which the president used the phrase “car out of the ditch.” There were another 46 events at which he gave a variation of that phrase — such as “car into the ditch,” “drove our economy into a ditch,” “we’ve gone into the ditch,” “they drove it into a ditch,” and “we went down into the ditch” and “finally we got that car back on level ground.” Sometimes, the Democrats were wearing muddy boots to retrieve the car and the Republicans were “sipping on a Slurpee.”

The Huffington Post’s Ben Craw helpfully put together a video montage of the president’s frequently-used analogy.

All those references don’t include the many times others within the administration used the car-in-a-ditch metaphor, such as a particularly descriptive one by former economic adviser Jared Bernstein on the White House blog that involved the extent of engine damage and current speed and direction:

Bernstein, Sept. 6, 2010: They drove the car in the ditch, stood by the road wagging their fingers while the Recovery Act and other policies got it out, and now, as the car is starting off in the right direction, are saying, “Hey, their plans can’t be working because that car used to be in a ditch!”

Let me be clear. The car, as I said, is finally moving in the right direction, but it needs to go a lot faster. Eight years of deep neglect has seriously damaged its engine and it’s not going attain full speed right away.

The president’s use of the metaphor became so common during the midterm elections that then-Deputy Press Secretary Bill Burton prepped reporters on a plane en route to a fundraiser in Wisconsin to expect the car story.

Burton, Aug. 16, 2010: You’ve heard the President talk about this when he talks about — you know, the story about driving the car into the ditch and all that. So I wouldn’t be surprised if it came up again today.

The president didn’t disappoint. Indeed, he spoke of the car in the ditch at a fundraising event for Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett that day.

It got to the point where reporters were sick of hearing it, at least that’s the implication in this question at a Sept. 21, 2010 press conference: “I guess the question is, whatever it is, six weeks until the election, is the president planning to retool his message or change it? Or is it essentially, as we’ve seen, car in a ditch, just louder and more often?”

The answer — based on our research — was louder and more often. So often, in fact, that we think it’s safe to say he did “dwell in blame.”

— Eugene Kiely and Scott Blackburn