Robert Dallek: Barack Obama will never become one of America’s forgotten presidents





[Robert Dallek is the author of several presidential studies, including books on John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, and, most recently, Harry Truman.]

In 1888, Republican Benjamin Harrison, who lost the popular vote to Grover Cleveland, but won the deciding electoral vote, declared that Providence had dictated his elevation to the highest office.

Providence indeed, a Republican Party boss sniffed, confiding that the new president "would never know how many people were compelled to approach the gates of the penitentiary to put him in that office".

Today, it is doubtful that more than a handful of Americans would know anything at all about Harrison, his election or what he did as president. Nor would most voters know much, if anything, about other more recent presidencies.

Occasionally, however, we get a landmark election that resonates for years. Barack Obama's victory was one of those moments. The first African American to win the presidency, the second youngest man ever elected to a first term (only John Kennedy was younger), and the largest voter turnout in decades add up to much more than a passing mention in the history books.

Of course, if Obama were to prove a great bust - an orator without a ground-breaking programme or the wherewithal to put across more than just the most commonplace legislative and foreign policy initiatives - he'd become another one of the many forgotten presidents, or at best an asterisk as the country's first black chief executive.

I'm betting otherwise. Like Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin D.Roosevelt, Harry Truman, John F.Kennedy, and Ronald Reagan - the most memorable of the 18 presidents who served in the last century - Obama seems likely to become an unforgettable personality who presided over a transforming administration.

All those presidents made themselves into household names by the power of their rhetoric and larger-than-life characters.

All of them had the gift of gab: Theodore Roosevelt used what he called the "bully pulpit" to bring Americans to his side, while Wilson gave speeches which some said were so lyrical that you could have danced to them.

FDR's "fireside chats" on the radio remain a yardstick for every aspiring politician to measure themselves against; Truman's "Give'em hell Harry" 1948 campaign stands as a model of how the spoken word can convert reluctant voters. JFK's brilliantly crafted inauguration speech and live televised press conferences have kept him in the country's memory for almost five decades; more recently, Reagan's charm and ability to reach mass audiences made him "the Great Communicator."

There is no better example of the power of presidential personality than the anecdote about the woman who stopped Eleanor Roosevelt on the street after FDR's death to say: "I miss the way your husband used to speak to me about my government."...


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