Obama's Charisma Doesn't Guarantee a Win

Obama's appeal is powerful, but the record shows that charisma doesn't guarantee success


Kennedy was an exciting figure during his campaign in 1960, but historians say he became much more appealing after he took office because he understood the power of public relations. Using the press and the emerging medium of television, he constructed an image of himself as a young, vigorous leader who was bringing fresh ideas to government and, with his glamorous wife and endearing children, was creating a Camelot on the Potomac. He didn't achieve many legislative breakthroughs during his 1,000 days, but Americans bought into the Kennedy legend. Indeed, he inspired many to enter public service. After his assassination in 1963, he became a mythic figure as a dynamic King Arthur struck down before he could fulfill his potential.

Talented communicator. But it was Ronald Reagan who may be most relevant to Obama's situation. Reagan, like Obama, was a talented communicator who was thought to be a policy lightweight. Also like Obama, Reagan billed himself as an outsider eager to take on the entrenched interests of Washington.

Reagan, who had honed his skills as a radio personality and film and TV star, was a master at carrying his message directly to the American people through speeches and TV appearances, bypassing the elites of Washington. In the process, Reagan not only won two terms as president but also enjoyed substantial success in implementing his agenda, from big tax cuts to restraints in the growth of federal spending and a defense buildup to confront the Soviet Union. He used his personality "to build pressure on Congress," Zelizer says, but he was also willing to play an inside-Washington game and cut deals to get what he wanted.

Just as important, Reagan managed to rebuild the nation's optimism and, through his lofty rhetoric about a "shining city on a hill," convinced Americans that their best days were ahead. Reagan is generally regarded as a transformational leader who moved the nation in a conservative direction, much as FDR moved America leftward. As with other successful presidents, Reagan used his special charm to achieve a handful of priorities rather than applying it too broadly.

But Reagan had some advantages that Obama lacks. When he ran successfully in 1980, Reagan was already a popular figure in the GOP who had sought the White House before, an authentic conservative propelled by a passionate following. Obama is so new on the scene that he is still trying to create a lasting constituency. "Ronald Reagan, I think, shifted our politics in a fundamental way," Obama says. "You know, I was criticized by the Clintons for saying that, but it's just a fact—that there was a realignment, and the conservative framework for thinking about issues has dominated for the last 25 years. I think we are in a place where we can start changing that."

Candidate of hope. There is another striking parallel. Franklin D. Roosevelt was the candidate of hope in 1932, when he defeated Herbert Hoover amid the Depression. FDR endured many political setbacks, but he never lost his ability to convey a sunny optimism. This expanded his charisma exponentially over his 12-year presidency. Through the dominant mass media of his time—radio and newspapers—he bonded with everyday people even though he was a New York aristocrat whose life had been one of wealth and privilege. In the end, he remade the federal government into a powerful engine of change. "He could speak to people as few could, but he could still work the system," says Zelizer.

Beyond all this, there are perils ahead, as illustrated by Woodrow Wilson a century ago. His presidency floundered because he overreached and lost touch with the country. Wilson did have a degree of charisma, especially overseas as the leader of a powerful and confident democracy after World War I. But he pushed his role as an international peacemaker too far at home, and his plan for the League of Nations failed in the Senate despite his best efforts to marshal public opinion behind it. Wilson's pro-League campaign exhausted and demoralized him and led to a stroke that debilitated him for his final months in office.