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.
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.
The real question, Dallek says, is whether Obama can sustain his magnetism in the rough-and-tumble of a modern presidential campaign. "There's an old saying," the historian says. "You can only hold the highest note for so long." If Obama falters—if he loses the nomination in a messy intraparty battle—his supporters are likely to be deeply disappointed and angry. "If he comes undone, there will be a big crash," says a prominent Democratic strategist who has advised Bill Clinton. And that could easily turn the country in a cynical, rancorous direction—spelling the end of Obama rapture.