Ever since Barack Obama emerged as a serious contender for the Democratic presidential nomination commentators have been falling over themselves to evoke the memory of John F. Kennedy. Obama’s youth, short time in the senate, and relentless message of change all stir memories of the handsome young upstart who squeaked the presidency in 1960. With the endorsement of Obama’s candidacy by several senior Kennedys in late January, the comparisons became more frequent. “A president like my father”, Caroline Kennedy called Obama. The New York Times evoked Kennedy’s most successful book when it referred to Obama’s race speech as a “Profile in Courage”.
With JFK still generally revered by most Americans, particularly the white working-class voters Obama desperately needs to win over, it’s a comparison Obama’s people are happy to see made (despite the odd snipe by commentators). The truth is, though, that John F. Kennedy and Obama came from very different places politically – and had very different concepts of “change”.
Obama’s campaign has been built on a solid platform of opposition to the Iraq war. Indeed, if Obama hadn’t been able to contrast his own opposition to Hillary’s mixed record, it’s highly unlikely his campaign would have gathered the momentum – and the money – it needed to seriously compete. With his willingness to negotiate with so-called “rogue states”, and to rule out the use of nuclear weapons against Iran, Obama has nailed his colours pretty clearly to the dove mast.
The contrast with the Kennedy campaign of 1960 couldn’t be clearer. Kennedy’s brand of change, and its attendant criticism of the preceding eight years of Republican rule, was unequivocally hawkish.
In the election of 1860, Abraham Lincoln said the question was whether this nation could exist half-slave or half-free. In the election of 1960, and with the world around us, the question is whether the world will exist half-slave or half-free, whether it will move in the direction of freedom, in the direction of the road that we are taking, or whether it will move in the direction of slavery… We discuss tonight domestic issues, but I would not want that to be any implication to be given that this does not involve directly our struggle with Mr. Khrushchev for survival.
So Kennedy began the opening speech of his famous debate with opponent Richard Nixon. Granted, Kennedy discussed poverty at length in his campaign, and also lent his support to the nascent civil rights movement. But his most progressive ideas were always couched in the rhetoric of the Cold War. “The kind of country we have here, the kind of society we have, the kind of strength we build in the United States will be the defense of freedom,” he went on in his opening speech. If we do well here, if we meet our obligations, if we’re moving ahead, then I think freedom will be secure around the world. If we fail, then freedom fails.”1
Indeed, as George Packer points out, Kennedy’s message of hope was coded to speak to insecurities bubbling under the surface of a nation allegedly at east with itself. In an atmosphere of steady-as-she-goes conservatism – the 1950s, with their fetishising of conformity, had just ended – Kennedy brought to the surface fears about the economy and America’s place in the world that had previously been unspoken. Obama, by contrast, faces a nation in turmoil, where divisions over the best response to myriad challenges have almost made civilised discussion impossible. This means his message of hope, his focus on the positive, can be much more effective.
So is the strange, and ultimately sad, Kennedy story of no real relevance to the Obama campaign? Not so fast. Because there is a Kennedy campaign that Obama has much more in common with – the 1968 campaign of John’s little brother, former Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy.