Comparisons between presidents Barack Obama and John F. Kennedy began in earnest when Obama first ran for the highest office in the land.
When Kennedy made his presidential run, he, like Obama, was also a senator, although he had served quite a bit longer than Obama. Still, both men shared a youthful exuberance that offset their inexperience in governing a state or holding an office with wider individual responsibility.
In fact, both men, during their first presidential runs, represented not just a fresh perspective, but a shifting demographic and a general change of attitude in the nation.
Like Obama, JFK’s run was an uphill battle. As hard as it is to believe today, Kennedy’s religion was a huge issue. The nation had never elected a Catholic president and, to top it off, Kennedy was an Irish Catholic from Boston. During the late 19th and early 20th century, Irish immigrants were highly disdained by so-called “native” Americans.
The Know-Nothing Party, which was formed in the late 19th century, for example, greatly objected to the immigrant influx, particularly that of the Irish. In the 1870s and 1880s, cartoonists often portrayed the Irish as idiots and drunks. Some employers even put NINA signs out front which meant No Irish Need Apply. And much of this was after a large number of Irish men had served in the Civil War.
Throwing themselves into politics, the Irish began to accumulate power, especially in Boston where they were quite populous, but still issues of religion dogged Kennedy during his campaign. So much so that he was prompted to address it in a speech to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association September 12, 1960.
“I am not the Catholic candidate for president,” he told the attendees. “I am the Democratic Party’s candidate for president, who happens also to be a Catholic. I do not speak for my church on public matters, and the church does not speak for me.”
Similarly, Obama was prompted to give a speech that addressed both his race and religion in Philadelphia March 18, 2008 during his presidential run. In that address, he, like Kennedy, pointed to ties that bound all Americans, and not to the ones that divided them. With race being an even more explosive issue, Obama addressed it boldly but hopefully, underscoring not the failings of the nation but, rather, its potential.
During their presidential campaigns, both men spread messages emphasizing service. “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country,” Kennedy famously stated during his inaugural address on January 20, 1961.
“I won’t ask for your vote as a candidate, I will ask for your service and your active citizenship when I am president of the United States,” Obama told a crowd at Cornell during a campaign speech December 5, 2007.
Relatively young men, both Kennedy and Obama in their first years as president brought an energy to the White House similar to that of lots of young people embarking on a new journey. Their outings as husbands and fathers are well-documented. Also both of their wives became fashion icons, even though their styles differ.
And both men are known for their intellectualism. Three books are attributed to Kennedy—A Nation of Immigrants, Why England Slept and Profiles in Courage. Obama has also written three books—Dreams from My Father, The Audacity of Hope and Of Thee I Sing. Both men were also honored with prestigious awards, with Kennedy winning a Pulitzer and Obama winning the Nobel Peace Prize.
There are also similarities policy-wise. Kennedy actually led the charge to overhaul the Emergency Quota Act, passed 1921 that also informed the Immigration Act of 1924. And, although Kennedy was assassinated before the law passed, the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, signed by Lyndon B. Johnson, eliminated visa quotas, increasing immigration from Latin America, Asia and Africa.
Of course it’s no secret that Obama is an advocate of immigration reform but he and Kennedy are also similar in that both are associated with other civil and human rights issues. During Kennedy’s presidency, the Civil Rights Movement was in full swing and he memorably addressed the issue on June 11, 1963.
During a television address to the nation, Kennedy said, “The heart of the question is whether all Americans are to be afforded equal rights and equal opportunities, whether we are going to treat our fellow Americans as we want to be treated.”
Obama has also addressed such issues, primarily in response to Trayvon Martin’s death and the subsequent trial and verdict. Just as Kennedy’s words carried weight, so does Obama’s. By stating that “if I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon” in March 2012, Obama brought presidential attention to the issue of racial profiling and Kennedy, of course, brought presidential attention to racial segregation. Obama has also extended that reach by publicly supporting gay marriage, an issue that was unheard of during Kennedy’s time.
Healthcare is another shared interest. Medicare was actually an important issue to Kennedy. In 1962, when Kennedy began publicly championing healthcare for the elderly, there was tremendous pushback. He was accused of trying to socialize medicine, in much the same way Obama is being charged now.
Like Obama, he went on an offensive, taking the issue to the people, including a televised address on May 20, 1962 from Madison Square Garden, in addition to working for consensus with Congress. Although Medicare was eventually passed, it was under Lyndon B. Johnson’s watch, not Kennedy’s.
Foreign policy is another area of overlap. While Obama has not endured anything similar to the Cuban Missile Crisis, which is one of the major incidents that defines Kennedy’s administration, foreign relations has been a particular thorny and active area for Obama, be it in Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, Benghazi or North Korea.
During their presidential campaigns, both men were accused of being light on foreign policy and, surely, had their expertise and capabilities tested early in their presidency and mostly succeeded.
Of course there are notable differences between the two as well. But, as the nation remembers Kennedy’s tragic assassination, and more importantly, the goodwill his presidency represented, President Obama can only hope that time will be as kind to him.
Follow Ronda Racha Penrice on Twitter at @RondaRacha