Obama's JFK Playbook

The remarkable parallels between Obama's rhetoric and Kennedy's

Caroline Kennedy titled the January 2008 New York Times op-ed in which she announced her support for Barack Obama, “ A President Like My Father.” It will be years before we will know if, and how, the Obama presidency resembles that of John F. Kennedy’s. But the first clue will come on January 20, 2009, when President Obama delivers his inaugural address.

The comparisons between Kennedy and Obama have fallen into four categories: their style, their “cool,” unflappable, and somewhat dispassionate demeanor; their families, their attractive wives and young children; a charisma that excites young voters; and their symbolic, “transformational” nature—the first Irish Catholic president and the first black one. One important similarity has gone unnoticed: the fact that both have understood the organic connection between a campaign and the presidency that follows it, recognizing that it is difficult, if not impossible, to follow an immoral, deceitful, and divisive campaign with a high-minded, transformational, and inspirational presidency. Kennedy also understood the corollary to this principle: that there is a similar connection between a candidate’s campaign rhetoric and his inaugural address, and that what he says, and how he says it, prepares the nation for his inaugural address, and in a couple of months we will discover if Obama understands this, too.

I think that in the end we will find that Obama, like John Kennedy, has been composing his inaugural address during his campaign.

Consider how JFK introduced, polished, and refined his famous Ask Not line—“And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what you country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country”—during his campaign. In his July 15, 1960, acceptance speech, he said, “But the New Frontier of which I speak is not a set of promises—it is a set of challenges. It sums up not what I intend to offer the American people, but what I intend to ask of them.” On September 3 in Anchorage, he said, “This is the call of the New Frontier. It is not what I promise I will do; it is what I ask you to join me in doing,” and two days later at a huge outdoor rally in Detroit, he said, “The New Frontier is not what I promise I am going to do for you. The New Frontier is what I ask you to do for your country.”

Kennedy’s inaugural address was also replete with heroic images from ancient Greece—passed torches and trumpets summoning warriors to battle—all couched in the elevated rhetoric of classical oratory—“Let the word go forth...” and “Let every nation know...” Throughout his campaign, Kennedy had prepared the American people for these images, for his quotation from Isaiah to “undo the heavy burdens... (and) let the oppressed go free.” He had, if anything, erred on the side of overestimating the literacy and intelligence of the American people; during his campaign had quoted from Francis Bacon at the Bergen Mall in Paramus, Edmund Burke at Frontier Park in Cheyenne, T. S. Eliot at a Minnesota bean feed, Aristotle in Pittsburgh, King Lear in Buffalo, Emerson in Duluth, and, at rallies here and there, from Victor Hugo, Wolfgang von Goethe, and Oscar Wilde: "Experience is the name that everyone gives to their mistakes."

Kennedy’s inaugural address is now part of the DNA of American politics, and its cadences, images, and phrases can he heard echoing through the prepared speeches and extemporaneous remarks of politicians for both parties, including those of Barack Obama. In Obama’s announcement speech, he echoed Kennedy’s “a torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans” with “each and every time a new generation has risen up... Today we are called once more—and it is time for our generation to answer that call.”

In his inaugural address, Kennedy followed “Let us begin anew…” and “Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate,” with a litany of exhortations beginning with “Let…” In his announcement speech last February, Obama said, “So let us begin. Let us begin this hard work together. Let us transform this nation. Let us be the nation that reshapes our economy,” and then followed with 14 exhortations opening with a more casual “Let’s...” Since Obama’s announcement speech, the Kennedy echoes have become fainter.

Some of this is due to the differences in the background and temperament of the two men, but much is the result of the anti-intellectual, anti-elitist temperament of our times. The attacks leveled against Obama for being nothing more than an inspiring orator have led him, on occasion, to mute his rhetoric. In some of his recent speeches one senses him that Obama is repressing his Kennedyesque tendencies, and reining himself in, like a jockey holding back a thoroughbred that wants to sprint.

Now that he has won the presidency, Obama may loosen the reins on his oratory. The first evidence of this will probably be his inaugural address, which will face high expectations and is certain to be compared to Kennedy’s speech. I think that in the end we will find that Obama, like Kennedy, has been composing his inaugural address during his campaign, perhaps unwittingly, perhaps not.

In every one of Obama’s major speeches, he has pledged to put an end to the low politics that have divided Americans, preventing their nation from fulfilling its promise. In his announcement speech he spoke about “the smallness of our politics... our preference for scoring cheap political points instead of rolling up our sleeves and building a working consensus to tackle the big problems.” In his March speech on race, he criticized Rev. Wright’s remarks for being “divisive at a time when we need unity.” In his acceptance speech he urged Americans to say, “‘Enough,’ to the politics of the past.” In his televised closing statement of October 27, he told Americans, “In one week, you can put an end to the politics that would divide a nation just to win an election...” and said that to make the 21st century another American Century: “we just need a new direction. We need a new politics.” And on Tuesday night in Chicago, he said, “in this nation we rise and fall as one nation, as one people.”

Kennedy distilled his call for sacrifice and responsibility into “ask not.” If Obama is to deliver an inaugural that will, like JFK’s, become part of our political DNA he will also have to distill the central themes of his campaign into a sentence or phrase that soars higher than ask not. If he succeeds, I suspect we will discover that, like “ask not,” the sentence was there all along in his campaign speeches. If he fails, it will be because he has labored under a handicap that Kennedy never faced, the idea that eloquence is somehow elitist and un-American.

Thurston Clarke is the author, most recently, of The Last Campaign: Robert F. Kennedy and 82 Days That Inspired America.