Ask Not… Why Obama is No JFK

There’s been quite a few comparisons of Barack Obama to JFK, I personally haven’t fallen for it and neither has historian Ted Widmer. Just Obama prepares to makes what he hopes will be history in Iowa tonight (with plently of deal making rumors circulating), Widmer explains in the Washington Monthly why he thinks Obama is no JFK:  

The Kennedy-Obama parallel has been played up by the press, and Obama’s campaign has not discouraged those comparisons—indeed, it has brought in Ted Sorensen, JFK’s talented speechwriter, to make speeches and render the judgment of history.

But the comparison falls short when voters consider the key question for 2008: foreign policy experience. It’s true that Obama, like Kennedy, is a youngish senator (at 46, three years older than Kennedy when he ran for president), but the parallel falters after that. The more one looks into Kennedy’s lifelong preparation for the job, the more one realizes how misleading it was, then and now, to describe him as inexperienced. Everyone who has stressed Kennedy’s youth, from Dan Quayle in 1988 to Obama today, has bumped up against the uncomfortable fact that JFK was an extremely well-informed statesman in 1960. As Lloyd Bentsen reminded us in the zinger that pole-axed Quayle, the truth was a lot more complicated than the myth.

Widmer goes on to explain the differences between JFK and Obama and notes:

In an editorial supporting Obama, the Boston Globe called attention to his “intuitive sense of the wider world.” But “intuition” would have seemed a silly quality to JFK, a realist even among the realists of his day. He and the other veterans he had served with were tired of inflated promises and wanted a world that would live up to the sacrifice they had already made for it. Like Kennedy, Obama certainly has a capacity to learn, and learn quickly. But there are qualities that cannot be gleaned from briefing books, even by the quickest study—independence of judgment, calm determination, and the deep knowledge of all possibilities that comes from years of experience in the trenches. To his credit, Obama has not personally cited intuition as a reason to vote for him, but the campaign profited enormously from the Globe endorsement, and has tolerated a certain vagueness about his background and intentions that now needs to be clarified.

In fact, no modern politician has trafficked more in “intuition” than President Bush, who trumpeted his “instincts” to an incredulous Joe Biden as his justification for invading Iraq, and famously claimed to see into the soul of Vladimir Putin. To run entirely on intuition and the negation of experience can work, and did in 2000. But to do so while wearing the deeply realist mantle of John F. Kennedy is to spin a garment of such fine cloth that it is completely invisible.

Steve Clemons has more on The Washington Note.

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3 Responses to Ask Not… Why Obama is No JFK

  1. TechInvestor

    Ted Sorenson is mentioned in the article quoted. I assume he’s supporting Obama because he likes him. Widner offers a differing opinion. Which both men are entitiled to.

  2. Ian Tepoot says:

    I have a few issues with Widner’s analysis. One of which is the following:

    “Kennedy lived in Europe, then the geo-strategic center of the world, as a footloose young man who had front-row seats at momentous diplomatic dramas, thanks to his ambassador father. Obama lived as a boy in Indonesia—a big, fascinating country, but not central to U.S. global strategy. If that childhood experience had a genuine impact beyond teaching him the obvious truth that the world is diverse, then he needs to make it clearer how he will translate that knowledge into sound policy.”

    The “obvious truth” that the world is diverse seems to have been lost on George W. Bush when he entered office. Also, it is one thing to be able to mouth that platitude, but another to truly understand that, and its implications. Many know it intellectually, but can not truly see the world except through their unquestioned cultural assumptions.

    I feel that this dismissive approach to Obama’s overseas experience perhaps betrays a lack of understanding of the value of someone who hasn’t just visited a place, but has had to truly lived there at street level. Obama is no JFK. His background is different, but perhaps more valuable than a JFK-like life would be in this 21st century. We are in a situation where motivations of enemies are often not geopolitical calculus but rooted in cultural convictions. We are in a U.S. that is multicultural. We are in a world that is interconnected.

    I am not taking anything away from JFK, so much as pointing out that the value of living in a culture far from your own (and a nexus of Southeast Asian and Muslim culture I might add that is as vital to understanding for the sake of our national interest now as Europe was then). As many who go to a foreign land, live in the “American Enclave” and attend the “International School” can attest, you can live somewhere and be completely insulated from the hard realities of it.

    The practical translation: his street-level experiences in the developing world will allow him to understand the limits of hard power and the benefits of soft power as the U.S. finds its place in the new century. I am sure that, for example, Obama would not make the mistake of believing that such a culture would welcome an alien power’s hegemony with flowers.