The Washington Times - December 10, 2008, 05:21PM

President-elect Barack Obama has a new favorite phrase: “glide path”.

Just this month, he’s used the term three separate times and each time in different contexts, when talking about the withdrawal of troops from Iraq, the path he hopes to get the economy on and the trend of the country’s long-term financial challenges.


During his Dec. 1 press conference announcing Sen. Hillary Clinton as his secretary of state, Mr. Obama used the phrase when talking about Iraq.

“We are now on a glide path to reduce our forces in Iraq,” Mr. Obama said, commenting on the recently finalized status of forces agreement between the U.S. and Iraqi governments.

He said it again during his Dec. 7 appearance on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

“The key for us is making sure that we jumpstart that economy in a way that doesn’t just deal with the short-term, doesn’t just create jobs immediately but also puts us on a glide path for long-term sustainable economic growth,” Mr. Obama said.

And then, again, during his Dec. 9 interview with Tribune reporters in Chicago, Mr. Obama used the term as he discussed “long term fiscal problems.”

“And if you look at the glide path that we are on with respect to health care spending and a whole host of other areas, we’ve got some big problems,” he said.

“What’s up with all the gliding?” asked Grant Barrett, a public radio talk show host, on the Web site for his hour-long show, “A Way with Words.”

The term “glide path” has a specific meaning, generally referring to “the path of descent of an aircraft,” according to the American Heritage Dictionary.

Ben Zimmer, executive produce of the Visual Thesaurus website and a former editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press, wrote in a blog post on Tuesday that there is precedent for using “glide path” in discussing economics.

“In June 1973, when the American economy was in a precarious state, Federal Reserve Chairman Arthur F. Burns was quoted by Barron’s as saying that ‘it is possible to keep the economy from overheating, and guide it into a ‘glide path’ of moderate sustainable economic expansion,’” wrote Mr. Zimmer, who has also consulted on the Oxford English Dictionary, a great resource opened up to me by Professor Michael Olmert at the University of Maryland.

Mr. Zimmer, however, said that he thinks using “glide path” when talking about the economy, as Mr. Obama did on “Meet the Press,” is misguided.

“When the glide path metaphor is transferred to economics, I think, it doesn’t quite … fly. Even if the economy is being steered to a ‘soft landing,’ it’s still going down, right? Wouldn’t we want to get that plane moving upwards, or at least staying level?”


- Jon Ward, White House reporter