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Jul 28, 2008 5:51 pm


The Ghosts of Presidents Past



Those of us in the chattering class prefer to think that elections are about issues and grand historical trends, but the political strategists see it quite differently. To them, elections are about emotions – specifically, how a candidate builds an emotional connection with voters. Ever since the still photograph brought vivid and real images of presidents into our homes a century-and-a-half ago, enabling us to project all sorts of feelings onto them, our relationship with presidents moved from the civic to the emotional. Radio and television simply amplified this trend, and the result is a presidential campaign that is far more evocative and psychological than didactic and instructive.

Barack Obama knows this perhaps better than anyone in politics today, and nowhere was it more evident than in his recent speech before 200,000 cheering Germans in Berlin. What Obama did, quite brilliantly, was conjure up the three most consequential American presidents of the modern era – Franklin Roosevelt, John Kennedy, and Ronald Reagan – and in doing so he connected his candidacy to them and made it easier for Americans to swallow their doubts and imagine him as president.

The Kennedy association is quite straightforward – the massive Berlin crowd and the soaring appeal to our ideals. Obama then borrowed from Reagan’s famous “tear down this wall” plea when describing “new walls” – political, ethnic and religious walls – that “divide us from one another.” Said Obama, “These now are the walls we must tear down.”

His Roosevelt allusion was equally powerful – right from FDR’s Four Freedoms speech in January 1941, in which Roosevelt described a world built on “four essential human freedoms,” freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. Here’s how Obama put it in his speech: “What has always united us – what has always driven our people; what drew my father to American’s shores – is a set of ideals that speak to aspirations shared by all people: that we can live free from fear and free from want; that we can speak our minds and assemble with whomever we choose and worship as we please.”

Not once did Obama mention any of these three presidents in his speech. But like the ghosts of presidents past, they were present throughout.

So Obama, through imagery and association, placed himself in the tradition of three larger than life presidents. Berlin was the perfect setting because it was the locus of history for so much of what these three presidents represented. For his European audience, associating with Roosevelt, Kennedy, and Reagan made perfect sense. But that audience was far less important than the audience over here – the voters Obama wanted to reach with the warm glow of historic presidencies.

Obama is a smart, thoughtful, strategically brilliant politician, fully qualified to be president for some, not so for others. As with so much in politics, the question of whether he’s experienced enough to be commander in chief is an emotional one, often in the eye of the beholder. Obama’s Berlin speech struck a chord of history that he hoped would resonate with those persuadable voters who may be intrigued by him but still see him as a risk. Time will tell if whether it was enough to allay those doubts.


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