Fred Kaplan just wrote on Slate an article that suggests President Obama is most like JFK. Read for yourself here. What follows is my take on the question. There are reasons why we should hope BHO will not follow JFK’s lead too closely!
I was an 8th grader, earning straight A’s in Civics class, taught by my favorite teacher, when JFK began his run for office. This was my awakening to politics and citizenship. Since I was in a Catholic school in a heavily Catholic town, the candidacy of JFK had near universal support among my peers. Ours was an active Catholic family in a very actively Catholic town. My mom graduated from the same academy taught by St. Joseph nuns as had her mother and grandmother. My father was virtually raised by the Brothers of the Sacred Heart at the very school that I then attended.
But my mom, having grown up during the Great Depression, had great suspicions about "rich people". Those suspicions extended to Kennedy and overpowered the allure of JFK as potentially "the first Catholic President". I absorbed her doubts and quietly hoped Richard Nixon would win.
But as I listened to JFK’s inaugural address, I was captured by the idealism of the lines, "…ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country!" And who could forget the commitment to defend liberty, "…fight any foe, pay any price…"
Subsequently, we had the Bay of Pigs fiasco, the introduction of American soldiers on the battlefields of Vietnam, and the Cuban Missile Crisis…. all within his short 1000 days as president. We need nothing like this from President Obama!
JFK had been challenged by Nixon’s claim that he would be "soft on Communism." In response, JFK ran toward the Right, and ran himself right out on that limb of unbridled, idealistic, and unquestioning commitment to "liberty" so eloquently expressed in his inaugural address.
In many ways, I view JFK having made the same "idealistic" mistakes as George W. Bush, who so often raises the banner of "liberty" as God’s greatest gift to the entire world. And like JFK, GWB has let this idealism get ahead of the practical considerations and proper preparations needed before undertaking war.
Since the election, BHO has swung well to the Right of where he was expected to be on many issues, but the swing appears to be more in response to a pragmatic appraisal of the dangers presented by the current situation. Pragmatism "in the small" is CRITICAL to idealism "in the large."
I hope BHO has learned from JFK’s mistakes and is NOT swinging to the Right reflexively. Rhetoric from the election will haunt him, but he must not let words spoken "back then" cloud the proper analysis of the present situation. The economic crisis may, in fact, be a blessing. The demand of the economic crisis may allow him to avoid being drawn into dangerous adventures. Afghanistan is actually much harder than Iraq; going into Iraq was never, as critics imply, a matter of GWB taking his eye off the ball. Afghanistan lacks the oil resources, history of democracy, secular perspective and educated population that were all suppose to make Iraq’s recovery easy. Afghanistan is also vastly more difficult from a military point of view due to logistics, terrain and lack of access to the sea. The current war in Gaza and the recent terrorism in Mumbai also demonstrate that the world is far more difficult to deal with than suggested by promises made during the campaign.
We will most likely learn very quickly how deeply pragmatic BHO will be; the "Economic Stimulus Plan" offered by the House Democrats clearly looks very traditional and in no way innovative. If he is forced by Pelosi and Reed to accept this largely as is, we will see little of the "Change" we all want to believe in. If he is to battle for his pragmatic priorities with Congress, and win, we can begin to believe we have a new model for future presidents. Future presidents will be measured by comparison with BHO! And the tired comparisons to JFK can be relegated to the dustbin of history.