Was It a Stretch for Obama to Evoke J.F.K.?

The president invokes his predecessor when selling his nuclear deal with Iran.

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Senator John F. Kennedy visiting Oak Ridge National Laboratory. 24th February 1959. T

Photographer: Galerie Bilderwelt/Getty Images

In an emotional wallop of a speech at American University in January of 2008, Ted Kennedy not only endorsed Barack Obama over Hillary Clinton, but explicitly passed him the mantle of his brother John while 6,000 people cheered, a number of them in tears.

“Now, with Barack Obama, there is a new national leader who has given America a different kind of campaign—a campaign not just about himself, but about all of us,” Kennedy said that day, not long before he was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. “I remember another such time, in the 1960s, when I came to the Senate at the age of 30. We had a new president who inspired the nation, especially the young, to seek a new frontier…They realized that when they asked what they could do for their country, they could change the world.”

On Wednesday, when Obama returned to American to sell his Iran deal in a nearly hour-long address, he not so surprisingly both began and ended with references to J.F.K., who in his ‘63 commencement speech here asked Americans to rethink the possibility of peace with the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War.

 “With all of the threats that we face today,” Obama said, “it is hard to appreciate how much more dangerous the world was at that time. In light of these mounting threats, a number of strategists here in the United States argued we had to take military action against the Soviets, to hasten what they saw as inevitable confrontation. But the young president offered a different vision.”

You see where he was going with the comparison, right?

Kennedy, Obama said, “rejected the prevailing attitude among some foreign-policy circles that equated security with a perpetual war footing. Instead, he promised strong, principled American leadership on behalf of what he called a practical and attainable peace, a peace based not on a sudden revolution in human nature, but on a gradual evolution in human institutions, on a series of concrete actions and effective agreements.”

Like, for example, the Iran deal that Obama says must be approved by Congress if we’re to avoid war and keep that country from developing nuclear weapons.

Obama’s evocation of J.F.K.’s address, and his suggestion that the Iran deal is a successor of Kennedy’s nuclear test ban, wasn’t much of a stretch, said presidential historian Robert Dallek, who has written two books about John Kennedy. “There is some interesting comparison here, in that Kennedy was trying to break the Cold War mood and move on to something more constructive because he had been shaken, as Khrushchev was, by the Missile Crisis of ’62. He said the U.S. needed to think beyond recent tensions and reign in nuclear weapons. And Obama is trying to break through this recent history of tensions with Iran, [so] there is some Kennedy legacy here that Obama is continuing.”

Others in J.F.K.’s circle saw certain parallels between the two men while Obama was running for president, including Kennedy speechwriter and adviser Ted Sorensen, who in a 2007 piece in the New Republic asked, “Is Barack Obama the next JFK?” (Yes, he said, in part because Kennedy, the first and only Catholic president, was elected at a time when many still said the country “wasn’t ready” for such a thing.)

So in the broader terms Ted Kennedy laid out that day in ’08—that Obama was going to inspire a new generation just as his brother had—how has he fared?

“When you’ve been in the presidency for seven years, it erodes the kind of excitement and hope that an administration begins with,” said Dallek, who has written extensively about aspects of J.F.K.’s life that the public knew nothing about at the time, including his health problems and use of prescription drugs. “That didn’t happen with Kennedy because he only had 1,000 days” in office.

Still, some specifics that Ted Kennedy promised did come to pass:

“With Barack Obama,” Kennedy said, “we will end a war in Iraq that he has always stood against, that has cost us the lives of thousands of our sons and daughters, and that America never should have fought.”

“With Barack Obama,” he said, “we will break the old gridlock and finally make health care what it should be in America—a fundamental right for all, not just an expensive privilege for the few.”

Other big lifts that Kennedy saw Obama accomplishing remain on the to-do list: “We will make the United States the great leader and not the great roadblock in the fateful fight against global warming.”

And, of course, this: “With Barack Obama, we will turn the page on the old politics of misrepresentation and distortion. With Barack Obama, we will close the book on the old politics of race against race, gender against gender, ethnic group against ethnic group, and straight against gay.”

In closing his argument for the Iran deal, Obama said that “President Kennedy warned Americans not to see conflict as inevitable, accommodation as impossible, and communication as nothing more than the exchange of threats. It is time to apply such wisdom. The deal before us doesn't bet on Iran changing, it doesn't require trust, it verifies and requires Iran to forsake a nuclear weapon.” That bet is no riskier, he said, than when “we struck agreements with the Soviet Union at a time when they were threatening our allies, arming proxies against us, proclaiming their commitment to destroy our way of life, and had nuclear weapons pointed at all of our major cities.” Only, we know how those turned out.

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