He’s Lincoln! No, He’s FDR! No, He’s Polk!

The battle over Obama presidential analogies.

John F. Kennedy. Click image to expand.
John F. Kennedy

Presidential comparison isn’t the most rigorous form of political analysis. Bill Clinton was the next JFK, until he was Warren G. Harding, and then Jimmy Carter. George W. Bush was Teddy Roosevelt until he was James Buchanan. And Barack Obama, if you believe everything you read, combines the best of every single ex-president, except perhaps Millard Fillmore.

The most common comparisons, of course, are between Obama and Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and John F. Kennedy. The Lincoln analogy stems from the Illinois origins, the out-of-nowhere rise, and the uncommon eloquence. (Obama hasn’t exactly discouraged the comparison, launching his candidacy in Springfield, quoting Lincoln in speeches, and taking the oath of office on Lincoln’s Bible.) Driving the FDR analogy is the corresponding economic crisis and the shared conviction that government can be a positive force. And the Kennedy comparison comes from Obama’s youth, good looks, and optimism.

These analogies reflect well on Obama, given how history has smiled on these particular exes. But historical comparisons work the other way, too. Not only can they bathe the incoming president in the warm glow of a legendary figure, but they also can burnish the reputations of the old guys by making their legacies seem newly relevant. Obama may benefit from the Lincoln, FDR, and JFK comparisons. But so do Lincoln, FDR, and JFK.

It’s no surprise, then, that groups dedicated to the upkeep of presidential legacies—the ex-presidents’ lobbies—are likening their guys to Obama. The Franklin & Eleanor Roosevelt Institute wasted no time in cutting a video that compares FDR’s famous inaugural addresses with Obama’s and featuring it prominently on its Web site. The Lincoln Bicentennial Commission, created by an act of Congress and based in Washington, D.C., has invited Obama to lay a wreath in Springfield, Ill., on Abe’s birthday, Feb. 12.  (Obama accepted today.) At its many panels on Lincoln’s legacy, the Obama connection has frequently come up. Meanwhile, the Lincoln Home, a national historic site in Springfield, plans to stage a play for Lincoln’s birthday that will draw a line from Abraham Lincoln to Frederick Douglass to Harriet Tubman to Martin Luther King Jr. all the way to Barack Obama.

As for JFK, the Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston opened a new exhibit two weeks before Obama’s inaugural address featuring drafts of the ex-president’s famous “Ask not …” speech, with Kennedy speechwriter and Obama adviser Ted Sorenson driving home the comparison.

Andrew Rich, president of the Roosevelt Institute, welcomes the Obama analogies. “I think the attention people are giving to the comparison is phenomenal for us,” he said. The institute can’t take credit for the comparisons—it’s not like they planted the idea in people’s heads—but, Rich said, they “certainly encourage” them. When Time featured Obama on its cover clad as FDR, Rich “happily bought five copies.”

The Lincoln lobby acknowledges its own debt to Obama. “It’s absolutely on some level eerie,” says Eileen Mackevich, executive director of the Lincoln Bicentennial Commission, referring to the Obama-Lincoln parallels. “He’s clearly studied the speeches. He’s clearly studied the structure of [Lincoln’s] Cabinet.” Both men also share “the idea that you can be honorable and a master politician and of the moment, as well.” The bicentennial would have been a big deal no matter who was president. (And, as Clark Evans of the Abraham Lincoln Institute pointed out, John McCain probably would have taken his oath on Lincoln’s Bible, too.) But Obama’s election makes it all the more notable.

The JFK Library hasn’t made the Obama comparison explicit yet—the speechwriting exhibit would have opened no matter who was elected. But it could happen, says deputy director Tom McNaught. “I won’t say we won’t do it.”

All three past presidents can stake some claim to the current one. But surely one is a better fit than the others. I posed this question to Rich, of the Roosevelt Institute. “Well, my feeling is the comparison to FDR is probably a stronger one in terms of what each man faces,” he said, citing the economic crisis. The Lincoln analogy doesn’t hold up quite as well. “The differences between [Obama] and Lincoln are so substantial,” he said. “But you can see why they’d want to cultivate that one more.”

Mackevich dismissed the notion of a rivalry between promoters of FDR and Lincoln. “No, in fact, one of our strongest supporters is a man … who directed the 100th anniversary of FDR.”

McNaught also rejected the rivalry idea. “I think they all are flattered that this idealistic, extremely intelligent young president has been compared by the public to FDR or JFK,” he said. “It basically says their legacy is a lasting one, as opposed to saying Franklin Pierce is my role model, or Benjamin Harrison inspired me to run for president.” That said, McNaught emphasized that “the country’s very excited about a president who brings excitement back to office.”

Of course, analogies aren’t always a good thing. FDR was extremely effective during his first 100 days; if Obama doesn’t accomplish as much as he wanted to, the comparison could start to hurt him. Same with Lincoln: Preserving the union is a tough act to follow. And the JFK analogy could be damaging if Obama turns out to share Kennedy’s weaknesses as well as his strengths.

But for now, the Obama-analogy business is good. The Fillmore lobby should take note.