Reagan and Kennedy Are Role Models for Obama

Obama's connections to the two former presidents run deep.

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Video: Obama's Role Models

There are two important political anniversaries in January and February that trace the arc of American history for the past century—the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy's inauguration on January 20, closely followed by the 100th anniversary of Ronald Reagan's birth on February 6. Admirers of each president are planning a series of separate events to mark the occasions, including panel discussions about their legacies, exhibits of their memorabilia, television shows, and many speeches. [See a photo gallery of Ronald Reagan.]

Both Kennedy and Reagan have become known over the years as models of presidential leadership. Each recognized the deep need in the American character for hope and inspiration, an imperative that is especially evident today in the aftermath of the horrific shootings in Tucson, Ariz.

Yet these two men were very different. Kennedy was the scion of an immensely wealthy family in Massachusetts whose father constantly pushed him and his siblings to achieve and whose fortune propelled his political success. Reagan, by contrast, came from limited means in Illinois; his father was an alcoholic who sometimes had trouble making ends meet. As a young man, Reagan moved to California to find opportunity in Hollywood. In ideological terms, Kennedy was a Democratic moderate all his life; Reagan was a Democrat who turned Republican and became the leader of a rising conservative movement. Kennedy at 43 was the youngest president ever elected. Reagan at 69 was the oldest.

But historian Robert Dallek says both Kennedy and Reagan retain a grip on the popular imagination for similar reasons. "Kennedy and Reagan are the darlings of the public," he says. "People remember them as inspirational voices. They gave people hope." Dallek recalled a comment by historian Richard Hofstadter that Theodore Roosevelt, another iconic leader, was "the master therapist of the middle class." Kennedy and Reagan played the same role. "Kennedy and Reagan made people feel good," Dallek adds. "Kennedy and Reagan have become mythological figures, iconic figures." [See photos of the Obamas behind the scenes.]

There is one political theory that Kennedy remains larger than life because of his assassination. But Dallek points out that President William McKinley also was assassinated, in 1901, but he was barely remembered 50 years later. Kennedy was inspirational in a way that McKinley wasn't, as the tribune of a young generation who captured a moment when the nation was looking for new vigor, new ideas, and new activism.

"Kennedy and Reagan are the two iconic presidents of our time, and to the extent there is a current mold, they made the mold," says Democratic pollster Geoff Garin. It was significant that President Obama took a copy of Lou Cannon's biography of Reagan for holiday reading on his Hawaiian vacation, because the incumbent believes he has a lot to learn from the Gipper, White House advisers say. During the 2008 campaign, Obama raised the ire of some liberals when he expressed admiration for Reagan for changing the terms of the national debate on fundamental issues, including relations with the Soviet Union, which Reagan boldly called an "evil empire," and the growth of government, which Reagan adamantly opposed. [See 5 Lessons From JFK and Eisenhower]

Obama's connection to Kennedy goes just as deep. In his campaign, and later in his inaugural address, Obama cultivated the comparison that he was a latter-day JFK—young, telegenic, daring, and willing to accept the torch of leadership for a new generation. Of course, just as Kennedy broke the religious barrier to Catholics serving as president, Obama broke the racial barrier to become the first African-American to hold the office.

"The time we spend remembering these two powerful and admired presidents, I think, will set the stage for how people start to think about President Obama as a presidential leader," Garin says. "And there are lots of ways he connects to both—the youthfulness of Kennedy, the strong communication skills of both presidents. I think that more and more, Obama has an interest in following Reagan in terms of defining the key debates of his time and putting his stamp on them."