Presidential Comparisons

Which president does Obama remind you of?

Barack Obama may have said that he doesn’t “look” like any of the presidents on dollar bills, but that hasn’t stopped the media from comparing our president-elect to past leaders on the currency and off.

Some of these comparisons are apt, and some are ridiculous. Some attempt to diffuse the novelty of the Obama presidency with historical perspective; others point to previous challenges that dampen the high notes of hope. As a whole, however, they reflect a press perplexed.

There are the expected comparisons:

JFK: “For all these surface similarities, however, the most important aspect of Kennedy’s campaign mirrored in Obama’s may be the way that JFK handled his Catholicism. In the 1960 campaign, Kennedy turned his religion from a liability into an asset. Obama seems to be doing the same thing with his race.”

FDR: “The answer is, a lot. But Barack Obama should learn from F.D.R.’s failures as well as from his achievements: the truth is that the New Deal wasn’t as successful in the short run as it was in the long run.”

Reagan: “Obama is touting a new and unconventional brand of grass-roots politics, but his strategy borrows from precedents set by a previous generation of Democrats such as Jimmy Carter and Gary Hart. His advisers also invoke as inspiration a surprising Republican: Ronald Reagan.”

Lincoln: “Filmmaker Ken Burns — maker of the “Civil War,” “Baseball” and other series — today jumped into the fray to endorse Obama, hailing him for his “moral courage” and “unironic posture” and comparing him at one point to another Illinois politician Burns knows a bit about, Abraham Lincoln.”

And some surprising ones too:

Andrew Jackson: “ “We’re still working on what exactly defines us as Americans,” said Cumberland University history professor Mark Cheathem, whose 2007 Old Hickory’s Nephew examines the Jackson and Donelson families. “Jackson gives us a view of that definition in the early to mid-19th century. FDR gives us a definition of that in 1930s and ’40s. Maybe Obama gives us a definition in the coming decade.”

Martin Van Buren: “Van Buren, like Obama and McCain, was forced to focus on the economy in his campaign. Doubt crept into investors’ minds. As credit lines dwindled and interest rates soared, overly leveraged firms found themselves unable to secure the loans they needed to meet their payments. Sound familiar?”

Herbert Hoover: “I was speaking to my good friend, Professor Gerald Matacotta tonight and he explained that the major issue we are now facing is the economy and on this issue Barack Obama follows in the footsteps of Herbert Hoover, who was a Republican in name only (RINO). Rather, he was a progressive and a social engineer, who funded massive public works programs with monumental tax increases.”

Jimmy Carter: “Obama’s supporters may imagine their man to be the next Roosevelt or Kennedy. But instead of BHO to follow FDR and JFK, he could end up being the next Jimmy Carter.”

Eisenhower: “Despite his own mantra of change and Republican efforts to tar him as a wild-eyed radical, Obama is temperamentally akin to Eisenhower in his reliance on persuasion and conciliation. If elected, he will face a much-more-divided America, but his instinct will be like Ike’s–to reason and heal.”

LBJ: “As I replay Obama’s victory moment in my head, it occurs to me how well Johnson’s phrase captures the ultimate significance of Barack Obama’s election: to fullfill these rights. Shattering forever the racial barriers and walls around the highest office in the land.”

Richard Nixon: “Both men have had their problems with plumbers. While Nixon’s plommiers were in his employ, Obama’s experience was more of a plumber ex machina, with America finally provided with an honest answer from the Great Dissembler extracted by a humble plumber, with Joe never having to wield his trusty pipe wrench.”

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Katia Bachko is on staff at The New Yorker.