Franklin D. Roosevelt had it, as did John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan. Barack Obama has it, too—charisma, that rare and elusive quality that enables a leader to excite and motivate voters and capture the popular imagination. One of the most discussed aspects of Obama's presidential campaign, in fact, has been his ability to create a sort of political rapture in his followers, especially young people.
But, as Obama has learned to his chagrin, charisma has its limits. In early March, the brilliant orator from Chicago ran headlong into the cold, hard facts of presidential politics as he endured harsh questions about his credibility, experience, and fitness to be commander in chief. Partly as a result, his highflying campaign was brought to the ground as he lost three of the four primaries up for grabs on March 4, including key contests in Ohio and Texas. Obama managed to maintain a slim lead in nominating delegates to the Democratic National Convention, but it was clear that his allure alone may not be enough to get him to the White House. "In this day and age, charisma is highly important for both a candidate and a sitting president," says presidential scholar Robert Dallek. But "judgment is more important"—and increasing numbers of voters may now be wondering if Obama, whose judgment is under attack by Hillary Clinton, is lacking in that department. Adds Princeton historian Julian Zelizer: "President Kennedy had all the charisma in the world, but he had a Congress that would not let him do much on his agenda," such as approving civil rights legislation and improving the healthcare system. It was left for Lyndon Johnson, Kennedy's successor who lacked charisma but was a brilliant wheeler-dealer, to get Kennedy's agenda through the labyrinth of Capitol Hill.
American idol. For their part, Obama and his strategists concede that he can't overly rely on his inspirational qualities. "It's not just his charisma or how he gives a speech," says Susan Rice, his senior foreign policy adviser. "It's his ideas and his policies. The package is hugely important—a combination of his charisma, his policies, and who he is."
Despite his recent losses, Obama is still an American idol to many, receiving euphoric receptions wherever he goes. Typical was a rally at the University of Maryland last month. About 18,000 people, mostly students and local African-Americans, packed into a basketball arena to hear him speak. When he bounded on stage, a slender figure in an elegant suit, the cheers were thunderous. After he delivered his trademark "Yes We Can" speech, hundreds pressed close to shake his hand, touch his arm, get an autograph, and glimpse the man who promised to break the barriers of race and partisanship and forge a new way of doing business in Washington.
Poetry and policy. "First of all, I don't presume to think of myself as a 'transformational figure,'" he said during an interview after the rally. "I'm just trying to win an election. So that's point No. 1. I do think it's a 'transformational moment.' And whether the individual who ends up in the White House fulfills that possibility, you know, depends on both skill and circumstance."
Obama has run into trouble not because of the poetry of his speeches but because of the prose of his policies, which his critics say lacks specificity, and his relatively thin Washington résumé. Hillary Clinton acknowledges his appeal but says the 46-year-old first-term Illinois senator is a national neophyte who hasn't adequately explained his agenda and is too naive and inexperienced to protect America in a dangerous world. Republicans agree and argue that Obama has used his popularity to camouflage the views of a tax-and-spend liberal.
The best use of charisma, historians say, is to harness it in the service of specific goals. George Washington and Theodore Roosevelt were effective because they husbanded their ability to motivate the public and Congress. They chose their priorities wisely and marshaled support in a pragmatic manner. Washington set many of the precedents for the institution of the presidency that survive to this day, such as limiting himself to two terms and rejecting imperial trappings such as extravagant titles befitting a king. TR took on the corporate trusts and mediated the Russo-Japanese War, which won him the Nobel Prize.