There is no doubt that President-elect Barack Obama is his own man and will earn his own place in our nation’s history. But even at this early date in the post-election period there is talk about presidential mirror images and models of leadership that may influence the kind of President Barack Obama will become. Many Presidents of this country have been students of history and have looked to their predecessors for guidance on handling the toughest job in the world, including avoiding costly missteps.
A case can be made that Barack Obama will be steered toward the example of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who when faced with the dark days of the Depression used big government and big government intervention to get the national economy moving again. FDR was never reluctant to try new approaches in dealing with the Depression; his alphabet soup of public works programs, restructuring of the banks, aggressive measures to control business and “spread the wealth” social programs have been either praised for alleviating some of the financial pain or panned as ineffective scattershot efforts that just increased the power of government.
A case can also be made that Barack Obama is the millennial equivalent of John F. Kennedy, with his youthful charisma, spellbinding oratory and his rock steady coolness under fire. But Kennedy will also be remembered for his misjudgment during the run-up to the Bay of Pigs invasion, his perceived weakness as a foil to the Soviets and his meager legislative accomplishments. Camelot and martyrdom overcame much of the downside of the Kennedy presidency, but during those 1000 days there were steep highs and dismal lows. Certainly an uneven record, despite the best and the brightest.
What Obama will likely hope to avoid is the Carter model of presidential leadership and decision-making. Entering office at the end of the Watergate era, Carter, the outsider, had much to be confident about with a Democratic Congress, a nation relieved that the Republicans were out of power and widespread support for a new beginning that accented reform. What the nation got was a president who historians view as mediocre, a president who squandered his power by failing to fashion a national vision, a president who despite meaning well often seemed unsure of the course to follow. After four years Carter was mired in Iran and Central America and facing popular disgruntlement over inflation, interest rates and stagnant growth. The American people could not wait to hand over power to the Great Communicator, Ronald Reagan.
If Barack Obama does follow the leadership script that balances FDR with Kennedy he very well may be able to right the ship of state and get the country moving again. There is nothing like a President who is willing to try something new and has a keen ability to convince the people to follow him. But there is always the memory of the Carter administration with all its good will and good intentions, yet desperately lacking in political skill, consensus building and that intangible quality of inspiration.
It would be nice to say, let Obama be Obama, yet there are those presidential ghosts from the past that may be difficult to exorcise.