During Barack Obama’s presidential campaign 2008 the media often called him “the black Kennedy” or “the new JFK”. But why are they compared to each other? The 35th and 44th president of the United States of America were both democrats and very charismatic, but this is not unusual for American politicians. The lives of Obama and Kennedy will be the main topic in this paper, additionally articles and speeches will be used. The first Chapter will contain the biographies of the two presidents, to give a brief background.
The second Chapter will contain a closer look at the comparison of Barack Obama and John F. Kennedy. During this Chapter I will contrast specific points which show how similar or, as the case may be different the two presidents are. There will be a comparison of their education, political career and family life. In this end this text will conclude whether the comparison is doing justice to either of the two presidents.
John Fitzgerald Kennedy was born in Brookline, Massachusetts on May 29th 1917 (Pergande 2011: 18) and grew up in a white privileged family, which is involved in the political system of the United States of America since the 1880s (Pergande 2011: 13, 18). From his early childhood he had the privilege to receive a good education, for example in 1930 he went to Canterbury in Connecticut, a catholic boarding school and later he visited the protestant elite school Chaote, also in Connecticut. He started college at the London School of Economics, but after he became sick due to an, at that point unknown illness, he went to Princeton. After another period of illness he followed his brother to Harvard in 1936 (Pergande 2011: 18).
In 1946 he was elected into the House of Representatives, where he stayed until 1952, when he was elected senator of Massachusetts (Pergande 2011: 29-31). On November 8th 1960 he was elected president and took office on January 20th 1961 (Pergande 2011: 138). At the age of 43 he was the youngest president ever elected (Pergande 2011: 67). On November 22nd 1963 John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas and buried on November 25th on the Arlington National Cemetery (Pergande 2011: 139)
Two years earlier, in 1961 Barack Hussein Obama, the son of a white woman from the low middle class, who was born in Kansas and an African exchange student at the University of Hawaii was born (Marschall 2009: 49-51).
Barack Obama graduated from Punahou-Highschool in Hawaii and went to the Occidental College in Los Angeles in fall 1979, where he got a full scholarship. After two years he used the “transfer-program”, that Occidental offered, to the Columbia College in New York, which belongs to the Columbia University (Marschall 2009: 83-84). In 1983 Barack Obama graduated with a diploma in political science. Afterwards he wanted to work as a “Community Organizer” to help struggling African-Americans. After applying to several civil rights organizations without getting an answer he decided to take a regular job. He was hired as an assistant by “Business International Corporation” in Mid-Manhattan in January 1984.
In 1985 he left Business International to help the needy people (Marschall 2009: 86-87). Obama worked as a Community Organizer in Altgeld, Chicago (Marschall 2009: 89). Until he got accepted in Harvard Law in 1988 (Niven 2009: 14) and graduated in 1991 (Marschall 2009: 101). 1993 he joined the attorney’s office “Miner, Barnhill and Galland”, which was specialized on civil rights cases. At the same time he also became a professor for constitutional law at the University of Chicago (Marschall 2009: 139).
In 1996 Barack Obama was elected Senator in the parliament of Illinois, which was his first elective office and eight years later, in 2004, he became Senator of Illinois (Marschall 2009: 149). After becoming the presidential candidate for the democrat party, he was elected president on November 4th 2008 (Marschall 2009: 11).
Barack Obama: The new John F. Kennedy?
As we can see Barack Obama and John F. Kennedy had two totally different lives. But why is Obama compared to Kennedy so often?
On a very first view Obama and Kennedy were both young, handsome and charismatic and they embodied “change” and “hope”, which were common themes during their campaigns (Sorensen 2007: 2; von Marschall 2009: 19). They were dissatisfied with the recent government and economic status of the USA, warned of the danger of war. Furthermore, emphasized the significance of democracy multiple times and also the importance of national strength, to get the United Stated “back on track”. They wanted to improve the global standing and leadership of the nation. During their speeches, in which they both “preached the politics of hope in contrast to the politics of fear” (Sorensen 2007: 2) they always treated the American people with respect and never “talked down” (Sorensen 2007: 2) to them.
In his speech “Inaugural Address” at the United States Capitol in Washington, D.C., on January 20 1960, after he became president of the United States of America, John F. Kennedy talked about freedom, change and hope:
“We observe today not a victory of party, but a celebration of freedom-symbolizing an end, as well as a beginning-signifying renewal, as well as change” (John F. Kennedy 1960).
Just like Barack Obama, in his Victory Speech after being elected president he said:
“It’s been a long time coming, but tonight, because of what we did on this day, in this election, at this defining moment, change has come to America.” (Barack Obama 2008)
Both, John F. Kennedy and Barack Obama were first-term senators and comparatively young when they got elected presidents. Kennedy was only 43 years old and Obama was 47 years old. Therefore they were called “too young” and people assumed that they had a lack of experience (Sorensen 2007:01).
Furthermore, during their campaigns the two presidents had a conflict concerning their religious believes. John F. Kennedy was Roman Catholic and there has never been a catholic president of the United States of America before. People were worried about the influence of his religion on Kennedy’s work as a potential president (Sorensen 2007: 1). In his speech in the Rice Hotel in Houston, Texas on September 12, 1960 Kennedy outlines the real issues of his campaign in 1960, the spread of communist influence, poverty and education. But he also reacts to the criticism about his religion by saying:
“But because I am a Catholic, and no Catholic has ever been elected President, the real issues in this campaign have been obscured [â€¦] So it is apparently necessary for me to state once again– not what kind of church I believe in, for that should be important only to me–but what kind of America I believe in. [â€¦] I believe in an America where religious intolerance will someday end-where all men and all churches are treated equal.” (John F. Kennedy 1960)
There was an issue concerning Barack Obamas religion as well. He was criticized for his church. The priest of the Trinity United Church of Christ, Jeremiah Wright, was very radical in his views, especially about the global political role of the USA and racism. He blamed all white people to be potentially racist (Marschall 2009: 114). Obama also reacted to these accusations with a speech in which he distant himself from Pastor Jeremiah Wright and his statements, but when Wright officially doubts that Obama really distant himself from these statements, Obama breaks with his pastor and leaves the Trinity United Church of Christ (Marschall 2009: 116-117).
Also some Catholic leaders thought that “Kennedy was not Catholic enough” (Sorensen 2007: 2). This is a sentence which Barack Obama also had to hear, but in his case it was referring to his skin color. Because of his white mother and his childhood in an all-white household it is said that his heritage is rather white than black (Younge 2007: n. pag.).
Another fact they have in common is that both motivated young people to vote (Sorensen 2007: 3). Kennedy was the first president who used the new mass medium Television (The John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum 2012: n.pag.) to reach out to the people of his country and his appearance was similar to a pop star, which made him highly popular within the group of young voters and women (Pergande 2011: 68). Also Barack Obama used modern media during his campaign”. He was the first president who used online platforms like YouTube and social networks like Facebook and Twitter to inform, contact and mobilize young voters (Marschall 2009: 41). Furthermore, the two presidents were supported by celebrities. Frank Sinatra sung the song “High Hopes”, which was published on Vinyl record and widely spread 1917. In this song Sinatra sings “Come on and vote for Kennedy” and “Jack is on the right track” (Pergande 2011: 66). Celebrities like Will.i.am, with his song “Yes, we can” and other artists like Scarlette Johansson or John Legend supported Barack Obama (Gosa 2010: 399).
Both, Barack Obama and John F. Kennedy had a war to deal with. During Kennedy’s presidency the Cold War took place between the communist and capitalist countries and he also had to deal with the Cuba Crisis and the war in Vietnam (Pergande 2011: 74-97). When Obama became president the war in Iraq has already been started by 43rd president Georg W. Bush and another war was going on in Afghanistan. (Marschall 2009: 21). These wars led the United States into the worst financial crisis of this century and an economical decline in the whole nation (Marschall 2009: 23).
Despite all that, there are also a lot differences between Kennedy and Obama. John F. Kennedy was born into a white family which was already part of the American political system for more than 50 years. His parents were very wealthy and so he could afford a good education, though his grades were never that good (Pergande 2011: 19). From the very beginning John F. Kennedy’s election campaigns consisted of “Einsatz der ganzen Familie und ihres vielen Geldes, viele Helfer und die Beziehungen des Vaters” (Pergande 2011: 28), which shows us that he was financially highly supported by his family and therefore possessed a fair amount of capital without collecting donations.
Barack Obama was born into a family which was part of the lower middle class. He earned himself the right to go to college and got a full scholarship for Occidental. Within twelve years he went from Senator of Illinois to president of the United States of America. Obama financed his campaign with many donations from people who believed in him and his ideas. On his campaign homepage people could donate as much money as they wanted or could, whether it was $5 or $500.
But not only their family’s heritages were different. John F. Kennedy created an image. American citizens and also the press and world saw him as a young, healthy man with an All-American family which just happened to live in the White House.
After there were rumors that he had Addison’s disease he denied, which was simply a lie (Pergande 2011: 58). Additionally he has been suffering from back pain, allergies, and asthma his whole life (Pergande 2011: 52).
Also his image of the All-American family was a construct. During his marriage with Jacqueline (Jackie) Kennedy he had relationships with several women. The most famous was probably Marilyn Monroe, but he also had an affair with the 27-year-old prostitute Ellen Rometsch and Mary Pinchot Meyer. Until today we do not know how many women he actually had (Pergande 2011: 49-50). Jackie was also very important to maintain the image of the glamorous president (Marschall 2009: 203), because pictures of her were printed in magazines (Pergande 2011: 42). In the media Jackie represented the image of the loving wife, a role she never wanted to play. As a student she said that she never wanted to be a housewife (Pergande 2001: 39-40).
Michelle on the other side talks openly to the press and was active during Obamas campaign and presidency (Marshall 2009: 201, 214). And even though Barack Obama wrote about tensions in their marriage, they are, as much as we know of, a happy couple. (Marshall 2009: 212). She also has a dominant appearance with her 1,80m height and a very athletic body (Marshall 2009: 201) unlikely Jackie Kennedy who often appeared doll-like.
As has been shown, the lives of Barack Obama and John F. Kennedy do have many similarities, but these are only on the outside. John F. Kennedy was a man who knew how to create and maintain a certain image within the press. One can say that he fooled the general public and the created image has little or nothing to do with the person he really was. It seems as if Obama’s image is trustworthy and also his family seems authentic, too.
Furthermore, their family backgrounds were very different as well. It took more effort from Barack Obama to become a successful politician and later the president of the United States of America than it did for Kennedy.
In conclusion one can say that even though Barack Obama and John F. Kennedy seem to have some resemblances during their campaigns the differences between the 35th and 44th president of the United States of America are too big to compare them to each other. This comparison is not fair to either one of them.
But in the end, despite all the differences, both presidents created a wave of hope for change in the United States of America, which led to a big cult about their personalities. They managed to move the people and gave them the faith into government back.
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